Accusations of impropriety rock Pam Bondi's office

Article Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel

By Aaron Deslatte and Kathleen Haughney

Published August 14, 2011


TALLAHASSEE – Eight months after she took office as a first-time elected official, Attorney General Pam Bondi is facing a management crisis replete with allegations of old-fashioned political interference in cases and a revolving door between lawyers and the companies they investigate.

An outside investigator is looking into the circumstances surrounding the May firings of foreclosure fraud investigators June Clarkson and Theresa Edwards. This week, another investigator abruptly resigned after giving the media a 16-page memo noting that two other high-profile lawyers in the attorney general's office had taken jobs with companies under investigation, and accusing top management of interfering in an investigation of a prominent Tampa car dealership.
But the worst development for Bondi may be that the 10 active cases her office is investigating have been left in legal limbo, thanks to a court ruling earlier this year that has effectively curtailed her power to use the state's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act to investigate businesses engaging in foreclosure fraud.

Peter Antonacci, a former statewide prosecutor and deputy attorney general under Bob Butterworth who now represents two firms under investigation for foreclosure fraud, said the effect of the ruling could be devastating to Bondi's office, adding that "perhaps 90 percent of the work they do in the consumer protection area relies on" the unfair trade practices law.

"It was a very bad result for enforcement of the law," he added. "People are now going to start challenging subpoenas… It's more fights for them in the future."

Bondi declined to respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman said the office would not discuss legal strategies involving ongoing cases.

So far, most of the allegations of impropriety in Bondi's office remain just that: allegations. Many of the individuals involved are not giving interviews, and documentation is sparse. Nonetheless, they've posed – at the least – image problems for Bondi, a 45-year-old former Hillsborough County prosecutor who in January was sworn in as the state's first female attorney general.

The latest blast came from Andrew Spark, who resigned from Bondi's Tampa economic crimes office and said in a 16-page, memo that he was speaking out because the public deserved "fair and honest government, independent of personal connections and powerful interests."

He complained that two top lawyers, former assistant attorney general Joe Jacquot and former Economic Crimes Division Director Mary Leontakianakos, had both taken jobs with foreclosure companies under state investigation, Jacksonville-based Lender Processing Services and the Law Offices of Marshall C. Watson in Fort Lauderdale. Both had worked for Bondi's predecessor, Bill McCollum, who lost a primary bid for governor last fall.

Jacquot said Friday he had avoided any involvement in the investigation into LPS months before taking a job with the company, and is legally banned from representing the company before his old office. Leontakianakos, a 25-year veteran of four administrations, was hired this summer by the Watson law firm two months after it reached a $2 million settlement with the AG's office. She said Friday she cleared the job with the state Ethics Commission and made certain the investigation into the Watson firm was closed before she interviewed for the job.

Spark also cited email showing that Bondi's current head of the economic crimes unit, Robert Lawson, had intervened to quickly settle a case that had been opened on a Tampa car dealership represented by Robert Shimberg, a former associate of Bondi's in the Hillsborough state attorney's office who served on her transition team.

"This appears to be a small case, but the target is a very prominent Tampa business and their longtime counsel, Robert Shimberg. You should be aware of this in case the AG has any questions," said a Lawson email sent May 2 to a deputy, days before Spark said his boss ordered the case settled.

But Bondi's office said Friday that her inspector general had opened a case on Spark on Aug .1, over his alleged use of an online auctioning website he was also investigating, calling him a "troubled employee" who was not meeting performance standards.

Lawson also said the accusation was baseless.

"I have aggressively sought to protect Florida's consumers since day one, which is exactly what Attorney General Bondi hired me to do," Lawson said Friday in a statement. "With regard to the [auto dealer] investigation, I have had no involvement in the handling of that case, and there are no facts in Mr. Spark's memo that demonstrate anything to the contrary." He said records show the investigation into the auto dealer continued into June.

Lawson was also one of the Bondi administrators who ordered the dismissal of Clarkson and Edwards, attorneys in Bondi's Fort Lauderdale office who had been heralded as rock stars for aggressively prosecuting lenders and their lawyers for foreclosure fraud, winning a $2 million settlement against the Watson law office last spring.

Bondi, in asking for an investigation of their dismissal, said she had heeded the advice of Lawson and others. But she acknowledged she was "concerned" that no documentation supported Lawson's statement that he'd given them poor performance reviews.

Instead, her office could produce only glowing reviews – cited by the two lawyers who said they were fired for political reasons.

But it's also clear they ruffled a few feathers while they were still in the office.

One of the companies they were investigating, Lender Processing Services, demanded an inquiry into their tactics last January – a day after Bondi took office – for using LPS court records in a 98-page Powerpoint presentation to court clerks entitled "Unfair, Deceptive and Unconscionable Acts in Foreclosure Cases."

"You are improperly acting under the cloak of your authority … by publicly vilifying companies based on unconfirmed evidence," LPS lawyer Joan Meyer wrote on Jan. 5, requesting an investigation into their tactics.

"Isn't that defense 101? The opposing counsel complaining?," Edwards replied Friday.

The controversy over their dismissals has overshadowed their role in the court ruling earlier this year that effectively curtailed Bondi's power to investigate businesses engaging in foreclosure fraud.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled in April that Bondi's office had overstepped its bounds with an "overbroad, vague, and unduly burdensome" subpoena for personal, business and financial information from law partners at three foreclosure law firms. Further, it said the actions of the lawyers – and the mortgage firms they represented – did not meet criteria required for violation of the Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act because they were neither advertising nor selling services to the public.

The subpoena was issued by Clarkson and Edwards, and announced in a press release on Aug. 10 – days before then-Attorney General McCollum's gubernatorial primary loss to Rick Scott. The effort was part of a push by McCollum to aggressively go after so-called "robo-signing" companies allegedly using forged documentation to speed up foreclosure processes.

But one of the three firms served, Shapiro & Fishman, fought the subpoena. In a ruling, a Palm Beach circuit judge called the investigators' tactics "very troubling" and wrote that the subpoena "is not only overbroad, vague, inconsistent and unduly burdensome, but it is both invasive and highly unlikely to reveal [illegal] conduct" by the firm.

Three weeks before the two were forced to resign, the appeals court upheld the ruling. Edwards said Friday she was "very surprised, astonished," that Bondi's office never appealed the case to the Florida Supreme Court.

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