By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Flagged by Broward officials for a conflict of interest, county lobbyist Ron Book has agreed to stop pushing for a new state law that county officials say would seriously undermine Broward’s pretrial intervention program and cost local taxpayers millions.
The new law is being sought by another of Book’s clients, the Florida bail bond industry. It would restrict access to county-run pretrial release programs by establishing new, statewide eligibility requirements for defendants seeking to get out of jail, forcing the county to spend more in keeping inmates behind bars.
County support for the pretrial program has wavered over the years; nevertheless, critics say Book should not be involved in representing the bail bond industry on the issue.
Broward County pays Book $53,000 a year plus $2,000 in expenses to lobby in Tallahassee.
At Tuesday’s commission meeting, Commissioner Lois Wexler said that if passed the law would “decimate” local pretrial release programs and place huge financial burdens on counties across the state.
Wexler added that she wants her money’s worth from the lobbyist that many consider to be the most influential in Florida.
“I want Mr. Book on my team…I don’t want him neutral,” Wexler said.
At Book’s urging, Broward commissioners passed an ordinance in January 2009 restricting access to the program run by the Broward Sheriff’s Office. The proposed change in state law would further tighten the bondsmen’s noose on the pretrial program.
“I guess the bail bond companies didn’t get richer or increase their bottom line enough by what we did a year and a half ago, so now they’re going in for the kill,” Wexler said in an interview.
“This bill makes money the determination of justice,” said Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein.
Book declared a “potential conflict” in a March 8 letter to the county after a county official told him the county opposed the pretrial measure. He asked the county to waive its conflict rules to “allow me to continue my representation of the bail industry.”
Those rules recognize the potential for conflict of interest in dual representation, but only when the Legislature is in session as it is now.
Broward has yet to rule on that request, but the matter may now be moot. On Friday, Book agreed honor the demand of another client, Miami-Dade County, which decided it did not want Book lobbying on the pretrial detention issue.
“I am in the process of extricating myself from the issue,” he said.
Wexler said Book may be disingenuous when he says he’ll stop lobbying the issue.
“The word on the street is that he’s already secured the votes for them so he can now afford to be neutral,” said Wexler.
Book may be out of the legislative game on the pretrial detention bill, but his sympathies were clear in a parting shot Monday at Finkelstein — his chief Broward antagonist.
“Public policy is on our side. And contrary to what Howard Finkelstein thinks, nobody died and left him in charge of what’s right and wrong in this world,” said Book.
This isn’t the first time Book’s work for the bail industry has put him at odds with his clients at county hall.
The January 2009 vote was accompanied by intense behind the scenes lobbying and public controversy. And 11 years ago, Book apologized when Broward commissioners asked him to explain why he had pushed a bill that would have weakened the county’s pretrial detention program and cost the county millions.
“Hopefully, you don’t make the same mistake again,” Commissioner Ilene Lieberman said at the time, according to The Miami Herald.
Book said Pete Antonacci of the GrayRobinson law firm will now lead the lobbying effort. Antonacci said the next hearing is Friday in Tallahassee at the House criminal and civil justice committee.
“We have very good support in the House and Senate,” Antonacci said.
The House and Senate are considering two versions of the proposed law, HB445 and SB782. The sponsors are two powerful Republicans – Lake Mary Rep. Chris Dorworth, Speaker of the House designate for 2014-2016, and St. Augustine Sen. John Thrasher, the new chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
A staff analysis of the House bill reported pretrial program data collected from about a half-dozen counties, including Miami-Dade and Palm Beach.
Miami-Dade said approximately 55 percent of their current pretrial clients, nearly 7,300 people, would be ineligible based on the bill’s requirements. In Palm Beach, the rate of ineligibility would rise to 67 percent, or 3,400 people.
Broward was not included in that analysis. But at Tuesday’s hearing Wexler said 1,750 Broward defendants who now use the program would no longer qualify if the law passes.
A fiscal analysis sought to project how much it would cost to keep those extra people in jail for the average length of time it takes to get cases resolved in each county.
In Miami-Dade, where the per day cost to keep an inmate in jail is $134.27, that cost would be $1 million to $10 million depending on how many of those 7,300 extra inmates remained in jail until their cases were resolved. In Palm Beach, the range was $1.3 million to $12.8 million.
Those worrisome numbers are fueling opposition to the bill among the 28 counties that have pretrial programs.
But that’s a plus to Antonacci.
“In some ways it helps because I don’t think they have a particularly good track record in Tallahassee. Every time out they say the sky is falling and it doesn’t happen. People become a little numb,” he said.