August 7, 2014

Firm seeks payment from family of paralyzed Broward man

Ron Sachs Media Group says it expected to be paid for PR services provided to the family of a brain-damaged Broward County man.

A prominent Tallahassee public relations firm is suing the family of a paralyzed Broward County man, saying the family owes $375,000 for services rendered over the course of four legislative sessions.

The firm, Sachs Media Group, says it had a contract with the family of Eric Brody — and worked overtime to ensure the passage of a 2012 claims bill that awarded the Brody family $10.75 million in damages.

“I’m as proud of the work we did for Eric Brody as anything else we’ve done in 19 years of business,” president Ron Sachs said. “But we never agreed to do this pro bono. We believe we deserve to be paid.”

But the state lawmaker who sponsored the $10.75 million claims bill said the Brody family cannot pay the Sachs Media Group without jeopardizing his entire trust.

The reason: the claims bill made it clear that none of the money could go to “lobbying fees, costs or similar expenses incurred” in pursuit of the claim.

“Everyone agreed to waive the fees and costs, and have all of the money go to Eric Brody’s care,” said Republican Rep. Jamie Grant, of Tampa. “For a PR firm to file a lawsuit is disgusting.”

Calls to the Brody family were not returned Thursday. An attorney for the family said he could not comment because his retention had not yet been approved by the court overseeing Eric Brody’s guardianship.

Brody was left brain damaged and wheelchair bound in 1998, when a speeding Broward County sheriff’s deputy plowed into the car he was driving.

A Broward County jury awarded his family $30.6 million in 2005. But because Florida law caps the damages state agencies can pay at $200,000, the family had to file a claims bill to collect any additional money.

Claims bills can be controversial — and are notoriously challenging to pass.

Efforts to pass a claims bill for Brody failed in 2009 and 2010. A similar proposal nearly crossed the finish line in 2011, but died at midnight on the last day of the session. Brody and his family were watching in the gallery.

The final award of $10.75 million in 2012 came with a catch — none of the money could go to the lobbyists or lawyers who worked on the claims bill.

“Yeah, I’m a capitalist,” said veteran lobbyist Brian Ballard, who helped shepherd the bill through the Legislature. “I wanted to get paid for my work. But this kid needed the money, and he got it. And I haven’t thought about getting paid ever since because I’m happy for Eric and his family.”

Sachs said he had executed a contract with the Brody family for “media, communications and related services” from 2009 through 2012.

“We treated them like family,” he recalled. “Our office was their headquarters when they were in Tallahassee. There were times I put them up at the DoubleTree [Hotel]. We fed them at our expense.”

Sachs said he had agreed to be paid only if a claims bill passed.

His firm sent an invoice to Brody’s parents in August 2012. The total bill: $375,000, including a $15,000 monthly fee when the Legislature was in session for “public relations [and] media outreach.”

The family was not responsive, he said.

Sachs said his firm had provided neither legal nor lobbying services to the family, and thus expected to get paid.

“I am not a lawyer; I am not a lobbyist,” he said. “We don’t sit there and buttonhole lawmakers. We hold press conferences. We write op-eds. We help draft testimony for people going in front of a legislative committee, but we have not testified ourselves.”

Sachs is a one-time press secretary to former Gov. Lawton Chiles. His communications firm, which employs 25 people, is among the largest and most influential in the state.

In addition to its private-sector work, Sachs Media Group has been contracted by the state Departments of Veterans Affairs and the Florida Lottery to do about $600,000 in media services and public relations work, records show.

The lawsuit, filed last week in Leon County circuit court, spurred a parody Twitter account: @SachsBilling.

“I’m dreading the phone call I’ll be getting from Sister Catherine at the orphanage when she sees the bill I just mailed her,” the fake Sachs Tweeted on Aug. 4.

The real Sachs said he knew the lawsuit would generate some backlash.

“We are going to stand our ground and let the court decide what the facts are and what the truth is,” he said. “We know we are on solid ground.”

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