Once viewed as an “inescapable” conflict of interest, some state lawmakers are on the payroll of firms that actively lobby the Legislature.
The law firm of Becker & Poliakoff has an extensive legislative lobbying practice that netted $1 million to $2 million in 2015.
The firm employs 10 registered lobbyists who represent dozens of clients, from hospitals to electric utilities, liquor stores and city governments.
The firm also employs state Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota.
As an attorney, Steube is supposed to look out for the best interests of his firm’s clients. As a lawmaker, Steube is supposed to do what’s in the best interest of his constituents and the people of Florida.
The Florida Bar once viewed this dual role as an “inescapable” conflict of interest, an ethical conflict so “clear” that the Bar issued a formal ethics opinion effectively prohibiting lawmakers from working at firms that lobby the Legislature.
That ethics opinion was rescinded in 1999 and now at least six Florida lawmakers — including the speaker of the House — work for law firms that lobby the Legislature, according to a Herald-Tribune analysis.
But there is renewed scrutiny of such employment.
“I think it corrupts the Legislature and it corrupts the lawyers,” said Thomas Gallen, a Bradenton judge and former state lawmaker who quietly has been urging the Bar to reinstate the ethics rule.
Gallen’s efforts have been rejected so far, but he gained a high-profile ally recently when Gov. Rick Scott raised the issue and recommended that lawmakers incorporate it into ethics reforms initiated by the House.
Ethics issues have been a hot topic in the run-up to the two month legislative session that begins March 7.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran has made ethics reform his top priority, implementing several rule changes for the chamber aimed at reining in lobbyists. He wants to go further and change the Florida Constitution to ban lawmakers and other state officials from becoming lobbyists for six years, which would be the toughest law in the nation to curb the revolving door of lawmakers becoming lobbyists.
But some have called Corcoran a hypocrite because he works for a law firm that lobbies.
“Did I miss the new House rule prohibiting legislators from working for a law firm that lobbies? I am not on the email list anymore LOL,” tweeted Ray Pilon, a former GOP state representative from Sarasota, when Corcoran unveiled his ethics reform package last November.
“The issue of him being involved for a firm that lobbies speaks for itself,” Pilon said recently of Corcoran. “It’s just hypocritical.”
Those who defend the practice of lawmakers working at lobbying firms say there are provisions in state law and legislative rules to address any conflicts of interest.
Some also argue that restricting such employment would discourage well-qualified individuals from serving in the Legislature because they would have to give up their jobs with big firms.
Powerful get jobs
Yet many of the lawmakers who work at lobbying firms obtained their current jobs after they won office. The offers from the big firms came as the lawmakers were amassing clout, raising the question of whether the firms are simply trying to get inside access to powerful state leaders.
Until recently, both of Florida’s top legislative leaders worked at law firms that lobby the Legislature.
Senate President Joe Negron quit his job last month, citing the desire to remove any potential conflict of interest between his legislative duties and his legal job. Negron is pushing a bill aimed at cleaning up polluted water from Lake Okeechobee so it does not foul estuaries, including one in his home district. Gunster, his former law firm, has done legal work for a sugar company that has a big stake in such legislation.
Among the other lawmakers who work for lobbying firms are Rep. Chris Sprowls and Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, attorneys who have top leadership positions in the House. Sprowls is in line to be House speaker. Diaz is considered a possible candidate for Florida attorney general in 2018.
The list of former state lawmakers who worked for lobbying firms includes U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and Dean Cannon, both former House speakers. Cannon also happens to be the lawyer responsible for pushing the Bar to rescind the ethics opinion that effectively prohibited lawmakers from working at lobbying firms.
Cannon argued the ethics opinion prevented “qualified” individuals from embarking on legislative careers.
“The unfortunate practical effect of Florida Bar Ethics Opinion 67-5… is that it prevents qualified attorneys from pursuing seats in the Florida Legislature if they work for a law firm that does any lobbying whatsoever,” Cannon wrote in a 1998 letter to the Bar.
Cannon’s efforts to roll back an ethics provision first adopted by the Bar in 1960 and reaffirmed in 1967 allowed him to keep his job at the high-powered GrayRobinson firm — which employed 22 legislative lobbyists during Cannon’s final year in the House — while he served in the Legislature. Now, he runs the firm’s Tallahassee lobbying team and is one of the top lobbyists in the Capitol.
Working for a big law firm that lobbies can be very lucrative for a legislator.
Rubio never made more than $96,000 as a lawyer until 2004, the year after fellow legislators chose him to be speaker for the 2007 and 2008 sessions.
The House speaker is one of the three most powerful positions in state government. Soon after he secured the spot, Rubio took a job making $300,000 per year at Broad & Cassel, a politically connected statewide firm that now employs Corcoran. The firm has a small legislative lobbying practice but also represents a range of clients with issues tied to state government.
Corcoran, who served as Rubio’s chief of staff when Rubio was speaker, once had his own firm, Corcoran Law Firm, P.A. In 2010, the year he was elected to the House, Corcoran made $95,000 at his firm. He subsequently landed a job at Broad & Cassel, which paid him $175,000 in 2015.
Negron won a seat in the state House in 2000. He earned $140,318 that year working for a law firm in his hometown of Stuart. In 2001 — his first full year as a state lawmaker — Negron’s salary at the firm dipped to $84,344. Later, he landed a job with a large statewide firm that does lobbying, and then moved on to another statewide firm with a legislative lobbying practice.
Negron earned $225,952 in 2015 from the Gunster law firm, which employed six lobbyists in Tallahassee last year who collected between $850,000 and $1.75 million in combined fees.
Moving to a large lobbying firm has not been quite as lucrative for Steube, who earned $80,064 in 2009 dividing his time between two smaller firms. Steube won a seat in the state House in 2010 and went to work for Becker Poliakoff a few years later. The firm paid him $102,500 in 2015.
Steube said he sought a job at Becker on the advice of a Tallahassee acquaintance who saw him “struggling” to do his job as a lawmaker while also logging enough billable hours to make a living.
Most law firms have an “eat what you kill” payment structure in which lawyers are paid based on how many hours of work they perform for their clients, Steube noted.
Because of his legislative duties, Steube said he does not have the time to do traditional legal work.
Becker offered Steube a more flexible arrangement. Steube does not have to reach a set quota of billable hours. Instead, the firm pays him a retainer to act as a rainmaker who brings in clients and refers them to other lawyers.
“Obviously, you have relationships because you’re in the Legislature,” Steube said, adding: “It’s easy to develop relationships and then bring them in as clients to the firm.”
Asked whether relying on contacts he makes as a state lawmaker to drum up business for his firm presents other conflicts, Steube said, “I haven’t brought a single client into the firm because of my position.” Being in the Legislature simply gives him “the opportunity to meet a lot of business leaders in the community and my firm can service all of those needs,” Steube said.
As for potential conflicts created by his firm’s lobbying practice, Steube said, “There are rules in place” to address them. He said he doesn’t communicate with his firm’s lobbyists about legislative issues.
“I know who in our firm does government work but I couldn’t even tell you who their clients are,” he said.
State law requires lawmakers to publicly disclose when they have a conflict of interest and abstain from voting on legislation that would “inure to his or her special private gain or loss.” House and Senate rules are also touch on conflict of interest issues. Some argue this is sufficient to remove any conflict that may arise from a legislator working for a firm that lobbies the Legislature.
That was the argument made by some members of a Florida Bar committee recently after they shot down Gallen’s request to reinstate the ethics opinion on lawyer/legislators working for lobbying firms.
Gallen, the Bradenton judge and former Democratic state lawmaker, had been petitioning the Bar to consider the issue for more than a year. In December, he went before a Bar committee that advises the full board of governors on ethics. With little discussion or debate, the committee voted unanimously to take no action on the issue.
“I appreciate Judge Gallen raising these issues but they’ve been addressed in multiple ways under Florida law and under current existing legislative rules,” said Garry Lesser, a West Palm Beach attorney who made the motion to take no action on Gallen’s request.
Gallen sees it differently. He served in the Legislature from 1966 to 1978 and knows from experience that there are many ways to kill legislation or help it advance without actually voting on it.
Lawmakers regularly work to convince each other behind the scenes. Committee leaders can kill legislation simply by not bringing it up for a vote.
“I was rules chairman,” Gallen said, referring to his former position leading one of the House’s most powerful committees. “I made the decisions over which bills were heard and which bills were not. If my law firm was lobbying, what a conflict I would’ve had. I think it’s unconscionable.”
Gallen called the Bar committee’s decision not to recommend reinstating the ethics opinion “terribly disappointing.” He speculated that the Bar’s leadership might not want to upset lawmakers. The organization has a strong interest in many legal issues that come before the Legislature, such as Corcoran’s push to place term limits on judges.
The ethics issue seemed dead until Scott put a spotlight on it last month.
Scott steps in
In a letter to Corcoran’s office, the governor’s chief of staff, Kim McDougal, suggested “shutting the revolving door, to prohibit the employment of legislators by entities including law firms that employ lobbyists.”
McDougal said the change would stop a practice that “allows members to benefit from their state position by working for law firms and other entities that profit from lobbying the Legislature and Executive branches of Florida’s government.”
Scott and Corcoran have been deeply at odds in recent months. They’ve engaged in a war of words over taxpayer-funded economic development incentives, which Scott supports and Corcoran wants to eliminate.
The governor’s ethics letter was viewed by some as an effort to ding Corcoran on his central issue.
Whether Scott was just trying to score political points, his letter raised more awareness about the potential conflicts from lawmakers working at lobbying firms.
Corcoran did not respond to a request by the Herald-Tribune to discuss his employment and the overarching issue of lawmakers working for lobbying firms. He reacted to the governor’s letter by telling reporters he will take Scott’s suggestions into consideration as he moves forward with ethics reforms.
But Gallen doubts that lawmakers will address the issue.
“I hope the governor is successful but I don’t trust the Legislature to do that,” Gallen said. “After spending 12 years up there, I know how powerful the lobbyists are.”