By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Retiring Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles T. Wells knew he faced a conflict of interest in his relationship with his future employer at Orlando’s GrayRobinson when he disqualified himself from cases involving the law firm on Dec. 30, 2008.
But that did not stop him 30 days later from participating in a ruling that, in effect, backed a statewide political fight led by prominent members of his soon-to-be employer.
The group that lost the ruling – Florida Hometown Democracy – now wonders if Justice Wells’ vote was unduly influenced by his employment opportunity at GrayRobinson.
“It doesn’t smell good,” said Palm Beach environmental attorney Lesley Blackner, Florida Hometown Democracy’s president. “When I found out he was going to work for GrayRobinson it seemed like there was a high potential for conflicts of interest.”
Florida’s Code of Judicial Conduct requires judges to perform their duties impartially, and to disqualify themselves when their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” The canons specifically say that judges negotiating for employment with a law firm are “disqualified from any matters in which that law firm appeared.”
Wells voted on Jan. 29, 2009 to deny Hometown Democracy’s motion to rehear a decision the court had made six weeks earlier to approve a controversial growth management ballot petition. Both votes were 4-3.
The petition’s sponsor was Floridians for Smarter Growth, a competing political action committee bankrolled by developers and statewide business interests. Smarter Growth’s measure is not on this year’s ballot because supporters did not collect enough signatures, but could be in 2012.
Hometown Democracy’s proposed growth management initiative is on the November ballot as Amendment 4. If approved by 60 percent of Florida’s voters, it would amend the state constitution to require voter approval of changes to comprehensive land-use plans.
Supporters say Amendment 4 would give citizens veto power over unwanted growth. Opponents say it will lead to higher taxes, stunted growth, lost jobs and lawsuits.
Broward Bulldog reported in April how Justice Wells took a senior job at GrayRobinson weeks after authoring the Dec. 18, 2008 opinion that approved Smarter Growth’s ballot petition. The Bulldog also reported how Wells failed to file state required final financial disclosure forms upon his retirement the following March. The forms were filed after the news site asked him about it.
Wells said in interviews in April and May that there is no connection between his vote as a public judge and his job as a private attorney. He said he got the job because of his longtime friendship with firm co-founder J. Charles Gray, and was free to cast his Smarter Growth vote because “the case had nothing to do with GrayRobinson, directly or indirectly.”
GrayRobinson, however, was strongly aligned with Floridians for Smarter Growth and its creator and funder, the Florida Chamber of Commerce. And for at least six years, its lawyers have had an ongoing interest in the PAC’s fortunes as leaders of the big-money fight to defeat Hometown Democracy.
GrayRobinson announced it had hired Wells in early March 2009. Terms were not released.
Wells does not recall the date he was hired. But on Dec. 30, 2008 he sent an email to Supreme Court Clerk Thomas Hall declaring that he would step aside from cases involving GrayRobinson and another possible employer.
“I need to recuse from cases in which the Bryant Olive firm and the Gray Robinson firm are counsel. Thanks,” Wells wrote. Bryant Miller Olive is headquartered in Tallahassee.
Wells, who served as chief justice from 2000-2002, declined to discuss why he wrote the memo, which was made public by the Supreme Court at Broward Bulldog’s request.
Ross Burnaman is a Tallahassee attorney who represented Hometown Democracy in the Smarter Growth case and in other matters. He said he was not informed of Wells’ recusal in cases involving GrayRobinson.
“The GrayRobinson firm was not representing any party of record in any cases I did while [Wells] was on the court. And beyond that I don’t have any comment on this,” Burnaman said.
GrayRobinson, one of the largest law firms in the state with about 220 lawyers in 10 offices, did not represent Smarter Growth. Its lawyers, however, have worked to defeat Hometown Democracy – Smarter Growth’s lone adversary – since 2004.
At the forefront of that anti-Hometown Democracy effort is GrayRobinson senior partner Frederick Leonhardt, a top lobbyist in Tallahassee, major Republican fundraiser and a member of the quasi-public government agency Enterprise Florida.
Leonhardt is on the policy-setting boards of five influential groups opposed to Amendment 4. The most powerful is the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
Leonhardt first spoke out against Hometown Democracy as chamber chairman in 2004-2005.
At the time, he also ran VoteSmart.org, a chamber front organization created to oppose Hometown Democracy and other ballot initiatives perceived as anti-business.
GrayRobinson contributed $16,000 in cash and in-kind legal services to VoteSmart.org in 2004, state election records show.
VoteSmart.org later changed its stated purpose from advocacy to voter education.
Leonhardt and the Florida Chamber remain among Hometown Democracy’s main adversaries.
On March 12 of this year, GrayRobinson and Leonhardt hosted a meeting of the President’s Council Commercial Real Estate Forum – a group Leonhardt chairs – at the firm’s Orlando headquarters. According to the firm’s website, Leonhardt “moderated the program focused on defeating Amendment 4.”
The program concluded with “unanimous agreement on a motion initiated by Jason W. Searl, of counsel in GrayRobinson’s Orlando office, to work together to raise funds and engage others to defeat Amendment 4.”
Three days later, records show, the Florida Chamber contributed $125,000 to Smarter Growth’s successor in this year’s fight against Hometown Democracy and Amendment 4 – Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy.
ISSUE COMES TO TOWN
Citizens’ “Vote No on 4” campaign comes to Fort Lauderdale’s YOLO Restaurant on June 9 for an ambitious fundraiser sponsored by the Broward Workshop. The workshop, a nonprofit group made up of top decision makers at 100 of the county’s major businesses and professions, has pledged to match dollar for dollar the first $100,000 that’s raised.
Those expected to attend include former Miami Dolphins majority owner Wayne Huizenga, Autonation’s Mike Jackson, JM Family Enterprises’ Colin Brown, developers Terry Stiles and Phil Procacci, nursing home owner Ralph Marrinson, lawyers Ed Pozzuoli, Debbie Orshefsky and Don Hall, and lobbyists Ron Book, George Platt and John Milledge.
The chair of the host committee is Pembroke Pines Mayor Frank Ortis, a director of Floridians for Smarter Growth.
There have been other efforts, too.
A prominent attorney in GrayRobinson’s Fort Lauderdale office is among a number of other lawyers at the firm who are actively opposing Amendment 4.
Gary Resnick, the mayor of Wilton Manors, recently pushed a resolution that put his city on record as opposing Hometown Democracy. As president of the Broward League of Cities, he supported a similar measure in March.
Wells said he was unaware of the efforts of Leonhardt and other GrayRobinson lawyers to torpedo Hometown Democracy until he was asked about it recently by Broward Bulldog.
“Everything you’re telling me is news to me,” said Wells. “It would not have been something that would come to my attention.”