Florida Politics

Records reveal close ties between Pam Bondi and lobbyists

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. EL NUEVO HERALD FILE

Partners with a powerful Washington, D.C., law firm aren’t registered as Florida lobbyists, but that hasn’t stopped them from wining and dining Attorney General Pam Bondi the past four years to discuss clients.

Bondi dropped suits or declined to investigate cases after numerous behind-the-scenes interactions with the firm, Dickstein Shapiro, the New York Times reported Wednesday.

A Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald review shows none of the partners were registered to lobby in Florida, meaning their advocacy may have violated state law. They won’t be prosecuted unless someone files a sworn complaint with the state.

Cases involving Dickstein Shapiro clients that fizzled in Florida include Accretive Health, a Chicago-based hospital bill collection company shut down in Minnesota for six years because of abusive collection practices; Bridgepoint Education, a for-profit online school that Iowa attorney general Tom Miller said had engaged in “unconscionable” sales practices; Herbalife, which had been investigated by federal and state authorities; and online reservation companies, including Travelocity and Priceline, on allegations that they were improperly withholding taxes on hotel rooms booked in the state.

Since 2011, Dickstein Shapiro has contributed $122,060 to the Republican Attorneys General Association, a super PAC where Bondi sits on the executive committee and that contributed $750,000 to her re-election bid.

Dickstein’s partners and a client, ETC Capital, have also directly given $24,750 to Bondi’s campaign.

Revelations about Bondi’s relationship with Dickstein drew fire from her opponents in next week’s election.

“This is an attorney general who, once she is on a case, like gay marriage, won’t let go,” said Bill Wohlsifer, the Libertarian nominee. “This raises so many concerns because over and over she dropped these cases for no reason.”

“This is devastating to her credibility,” said Democratic nominee George Sheldon. “It tarnishes the images of attorneys general nationwide. This whole pay-to-play concept has got to stop.”

No issues

Bondi said her interactions with special interests don’t interfere with her duties.

“My office aggressively protects Floridians from unfair and deceptive business practices,” Bondi said in a statement. “And absolutely no access to me or my staff is going to have any bearing on my efforts to protect Floridians.”

It’s not the first time questions have arisen about how Bondi intermingles politics with her official duties.

She postponed an execution last year so she could host a political fundraiser. At about the same time, Bondi accepted $25,000 from Donald Trump three days after a spokeswoman said she would be reviewing a complaint filed by the New York attorney general against Trump’s for-profit schools. Even though they’ve received complaints in Florida as well, Bondi’s office has yet to take action.

Bernie Nash, the Dickstein Shapiro partner who oversees its lobbying of attorneys general, first made contact with Bondi shortly after she was elected in 2010. The firm regularly attends RAGA and National Association of Attorneys General meetings in resorts across the nation hoping to spend time with members and their staffs.

Nash, who couldn’t be reached for comment, and other firm members invited Bondi and her staff a dozen times to various dinners, from an upscale Georgetown bistro, to the Flagler Steakhouse at the exclusive Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, to a fine dining restaurant in Hawaii.

Email records show meetings were frequent. In 2012, Carlos Muniz, Bondi’s chief of staff at the time, asked Dickstein attorney Divonne Smoyer for drinks at a hotel bar where a NAAG conference was being held. She agreed by replying “Perfect.”

When reached Wednesday, Smoyer, who is no longer with the firm, refused to answer why she lobbied Bondi’s staff if she wasn’t registered as a Florida lobbyist.

State disclosure records show Bondi frequently booked trips to the cities where she was invited to dine with Dickstein Shapiro, staying at expensive resorts. She went to Hawaii in 2011 and had her expenses paid by the Conference of Western Attorneys General. The group covered nearly $1,600 of her travel expenses, including a $351 gift bag. Taxpayers picked up the rest.

She traveled again on the same group’s dime on a 2014 trip to Mexico, where it paid for $4,000 in gifts. NAAG also gave her $4,000 to cover a trip to Israel.

Big benefactor

Overall, RAGA is her biggest benefactor, spending $25,000 in the form of gifts to cover expenses to attend conferences that allowed her to meet with Dickstein Shapiro partners.

Emails show that one of the firm’s partners, Lori Kalani, helped set up a glowing cover story on Bondi in InsideCounsel magazine, which is distributed to corporate lawyers. In the July 1, 2013, story, Bondi was asked how to work with companies.

“You treat each other with respect and civility, even if you’re adversaries,” she said.

Dickstein repeatedly invited Bondi to events that could raise her national profile, including a panel discussion with firm clients at the Washington Ritz-Carlton where she was given an advance list of questions. Bondi accepted this invitation, and timed it with a NAAG meeting where she attended another dinner with Dickstein and held a fundraiser at the offices of Home Depot.

Several of Dickstein’s clients have benefitted from Bondi’s lack of action.

Nash contacted Bondi’s office to persuade it not to file suit against Accretive Health, which had agreed with Minnesota’s attorney general to cease operations for six years beginning in 2012. Florida hasn’t taken any action, and a marketing brochure from the firm claims “we persuaded AGs not to sue Accretive Health.”

Contact Michael Van Sickler at (850) 224-7263. Follow @mikevansickler.

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