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Sunshine State News

October 7, 2010 - 6:00pm

The Democratic Party fashions itself as a party of the people. In Florida, those people include plenty of big-time trial lawyers.

Nearly $1 of every $10 contributed to the party over the past year has come from attorneys. Many of the largest donations are from large firms specializing in personal-injury litigation.

All told, lawyers accounted for $1,714,385 of the $18,659,293 in contributions listed by the Florida Democratic Party since the beginning of 2009. During that period, 384 separate law-firm contributions were reported by the FDP.

Labor unions, as usual, were the biggest donors to the Democratic Party, giving $2,240,368, but trial lawyers exceed that figure when their direct contributions to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink are included.

As of Sept. 29, attorneys' contributions to Sink's war chest totaled $1,431,618 -- far more than she received from Big Labor or any professional group.

In effect, Florida's lawyers are doubling down on Sink because the Democratic Party is investing heavily in her campaign in an effort to counter the personal fortune of her Republican rival, Rick Scott.

Thus far, the FDP has funded $4.2 million of Sink's expenses while pitching in $9 million more for her TV ads.

Sink's acceptance of party assistance is a 180-degree turnaround from 2006, when, as a candidate for state chief financial officer, she decried Republican opponent Tom Lee's use of RPOF funds for TV ads on his behalf.

At the time, Sink called that "the ultimate in non-transparency."

But Sink is eagerly taking party cash in bundles this year as she faces a media blitz from the deep-pocketed Scott.

William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, says trial lawyers "want to ensure they have some friendly faces back in the capital, and they are willing to spend whatever it takes to make sure they have the political capital to be a powerful roadblock to any legislation that reins in litigation in our courts."

The governor's race, which polls say is tight, is crucial to Democrats -- and to their allied attorneys. If Sink wins, a Democratic governor can wave a veto pen over the Republican Legislature.

A veto could come into play on a variety of issues near and dear to trial lawyers, including their perennial tussles over tort reform and laws governing business liability.

Another hot button is legislative and congressional redistricting, and it's no surprise that some of the same law firms that contribute to the FDP are also big donors to the so-called FairDistricts campaign (Amendments 5 and 6 on the November ballot).

Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley, for example, contributed $115,000 to FairDistricts and $80,000 to the Florida Democratic Party.

Wayne Hogan, a Jacksonville trial lawyer, gave $70,000 to FairDistricts and $105,000 to the FDP.

"Gerrymandering is the single biggest obstacle to truly representative government, the greatest impediment to a properly functioning two-party system," explains Jack Scarola, a partner with Searcy Denney.

Balancing Democratic and Republican power, Scarola says, extends to proper representation in court, where his firm is one of the state's biggest litigators of personal injury claims.

"The rights of injured victims are a day-to-day concern," he says. "Those rights will be far better protected if the Legislature is compelled to be responsive to the will of the majority, not controlled, as it presently is in many circumstances, by minority interests -- big business, the medical establishment and banking interests."

Barney Bishop, president of CEO of Associated Industries of Florida, said, "Democrats consistently vote with the trial lawyers -- just look at their vote on joint and several liability in 2006."

Likewise, he said it's no coincidence the lawyers are funding both the FDP and the Amendment 5/6 campaign.

"FairDistricts puts redistricting in the hands of the courts," contends Bishop, a former state Democratic Party executive director who also headed the trial bar's fund-raising arm from 1983-1987.

Beyond Scarola's high-minded ideals about "the haves and the have-nots," contributing attorneys may pursue more overtly political agendas.

In an extreme case, influence-peddling attorney Scott Rothstein gave $200,000 to the Florida Democratic Party last year. Rothstein was subsequently sentenced to 50 years in federal court for his billion-dollar ponzi scheme, which he used to fund political donations.

The party has since returned the contribution to the estate of his defunct Fort Lauderdale law firm, Rothstein, Rosenfeldt and Adler.

"The trial bar has always been a big political contributor in Florida and nationally," Large observes. "They have consistently poured millions into campaigns, and there's a lot on the line for them, particularly on the heels of them trying to defeat [state Sen.] John Thrasher. They didn't make any friends with their antics during that election."

Rick McAllister, president and CEO of the Florida Retail Federation, calls the Democratic Party the "natural constituency" of trial lawyers.

"They hope to use their influence to get more liberal laws and regulations as it relates to their ability to bring lawsuits that most of us would consider inappropriate," he said.

Noting that Republicans receive the lion's share of contributions from the business community, McAllister said, "We're very fortunate that both the House and Senate are controlled by conservatives.

"We think we're doing the Lord's work in helping make Florida a more business-friendly place that attracts and expands jobs," McAllister said of the RTF and like-minded groups that favor RPOF candidates.

Meanwhile, trial lawyers' contributions keep flowing the other way, and it's safe to assume that many more attorney donations will roll in to FDP coffers before the party is required to file its next campaign finance report on Oct. 28.

Florida Democratic Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff declined to respond to Sunshine State News' questions on the record.

Contact Kenric Ward at [email protected] or at (772) 801-5341.

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