Doubts raised about attorney general candidate’s residency

George Sheldon has spent nine months and raised nearly $300,000 to become Florida’s next attorney general.

But now his candidacy is in some doubt because of questions over where he has lived.

“For him to stay in the race, he has to satisfy the legal requirement of being a resident,” said his opponent in the Aug. 26 primary, House Democratic leader Rep. Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale. “The residency issue is an issue, based on my reading of the Constitution. I think it raises some serious questions.”

According to the Florida Constitution, those running for attorney general must reside in the state the preceding seven years.

From 2011 to October 2013, Sheldon held a $179,000 job at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that required him to live, at least part time, out of state.

Sheldon says there’s no problem because he claimed Florida’s $50,000 homestead tax exemption for one of his two Tallahassee homes. He said he didn’t rent out the home and would visit it periodically. And he kept his voter registration in Tallahassee.

“I was clearly a resident,” Sheldon said. “As long as I maintained my residence in Florida, I think I qualify.”

But in a Wednesday email to the Florida Bar, Sheldon said he had been living out of state. He was seeking to qualify for an exemption from a Florida Bar requirement to take continuing legal education, and to reinstate his eligibility to practice law.

“I was acting assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services living in Washington as demonstrated by my address in Washington,” Sheldon wrote to Michelle Francis, the Bar’s education compliance and accreditation manager. “As such, I am exempt for those years from the CLE requirement and assumed that the Bar was aware of my status.”

Sheldon’s plea worked. The Florida Bar reinstated his status as a “member in good standing” later that afternoon, although it still lists his Washington address. Now that he lives in Florida, Sheldon must comply with the rule in the future.

He was seeking an exemption to the Florida Bar rules that applies for “nonresident members not delivering legal services or advice on matters or issues governed by Florida law.” If he qualifies for that, how does he also count as a state resident under the Constitution?

“I don’t see a conflict,” Sheldon said. “But we’ll have some lawyers look at it.”

Sheldon’s residency became an issue after he learned Tuesday that his Bar license had lapsed because he had failed to complete or report continued education. To be attorney general, Sheldon needed the law license.

The Constitution’s residency requirement disqualified another Democratic candidate in 2005. Lawton “Bud” Chiles, son of the late governor, had to bow out of the race because he had lived in New York and New Jersey for a decade before moving back to Florida three years before the election.

Florida Bar executive director John Harkness said Sheldon’s residency status, from the Bar’s perspective, pertains to where he was practicing law. Still, he said he didn’t know if Sheldon’s status as an attorney general candidate was at risk because of the exemption.

It’s not clear who would challenge Sheldon in this case.

Brittany Lesser, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state, said it’s not within the Division of Election’s authority to determine if Sheldon meets the residency requirement.

Thurston said he’ll monitor the issue, but the Florida Democratic Party needs to settle it.

“Is this an issue they want to deal with now or later?” Thurston said, alluding to Republican incumbent Pam Bondi, who awaits the Democratic victor in the general election.

Joshua Karp, a spokesman for the state Democratic party, said it won’t play a role in determining if Sheldon meets the residency requirement.

“This is a question for Mr. Sheldon,” Karp said. “We look forward to what he learns.”