Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: For Florida’s attorney general, justice not cheap

She mooches well.

Dazzling trips to faraway luxury resorts. Hotels rooms that would cost a mere mortal as much as $4,500 a night. Meals at storied restaurants. Swag bags stuffed with complimentary gifts.

In the last two years, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has enjoyed $25,000 worth of free airfare, hotels, meals and gifts to attend exotic meetings sponsored by the Republican Attorneys General Association, known as RAGA, according to an investigative piece published Wednesday by the New York Times.

The money for these very fancy outings came from corporate sponsors — very special corporate sponsors. Companies desperate to stanch state attorneys general investigations and lawsuits over consumer ripoffs or defective products or environmental violations or deceptive claims or tax dodges or financial irregularities have discovered that picking up the tab for RAGA conferences and other gatherings of attorneys general can be a splendid investment.

A burgeoning new lobbying industry has grown up around gaining access to attorneys general. These persuasion specialists must be the envy of their counterparts wallowing around state legislatures. Not only do their jobs entail hanging out in beach resorts in Hawaii or ski resorts in Utah or desert retreats in Arizona, where they entertain attorneys general like so many Lotto winners, they’re unburdened by the lobbying disclosure rules that complicate influence-buying in state legislatures.

Lobbyists paid to influence attorneys general only need to convince a single politician in each state to back off from, say, that investigation into e-cigarettes or oil pipelines or fracking or dangerous pharmaceuticals. The Times’ investigation indicated that it’s really, really effective to woo attorneys general on a yacht or golf course or over drinks at Donald Trump’s opulent Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach.

The Tampa Bay Times reported last year that after Pam attended a swell night fundraiser at the Mar-a-Lago (arranged by an AG lobby specialist), and after she collected a $25,000 campaign contribution from Trump, her office lost interest in pursuing consumer complaints against Trump University. The New York attorney general’s office, meanwhile, went after The Donald with considerable gusto, calling Trump U and its affiliates “sham for profit colleges.”

The New York Times noticed that her office also shrugged off allegations against other clients of Dickstein Shapiro, the nation’s leading lobbying firm when it comes to the art of cuddling up to attorneys general, an outfit that has lavished considerable attention (and money) on Bondi. Cases went away against on-line reservation companies and a hospital bill collector and a vitamin peddling scheme and another for-profit education outfit — all clients of Dickstein Shapiro.

Of course, it just might be a coincidence. Pam just happened to be wined and dined by corporate entities that would really, really like the attorney general’s office to see things their way. But to say that it looks bad — that’s a mighty understatement.

Here is Florida’s top law enforcement official partying in grand style, courtesy of outfits that are essentially targets of her very office, companies that may have broken state laws. It would be like a police chief hunkering down with criminal suspects.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear a case involving a Florida judicial candidate in a 2009 election in Hillsborough County. Lanell Williams-Yulee had sent out a mass mailing that solicited campaign contributions: “An early contribution of $25, $50, $100, $250, or $500, made payable to ‘Lanell Williams-Yulee Campaign for County Judge,’ will help raise the initial funds needed to launch the campaign and get our message out to the public.”

The Florida Bar fined Williams-Yulee $1,860, citing a violation of a Bar rule against judicial candidates soliciting campaign funds. Obviously, the rule curtailed Williams-Yulee’s free speech rights, but the Bar held that the greater public good trumped those rights, that allowing solicitations would leave the impression that justice was for sale in Florida. The Florida Supreme Court agreed.

But Williams-Yulee’s transgressions seem so much less offensive than the exotic outings of our state attorney general, financed by corporations looking for a favor. Talk about leaving an impression that justice is for sale in Florida. Though in the case of Pam Bondi and other attorneys general across the nation, justice may be for sale, but it ain’t cheap.

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