TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has emerged in her short time on the job as a fierce critic of the federal health care overhaul and a tenacious opponent of illegal prescription drug sales.
But the telegenic former prosecutor also is battling questions about her commitment to consumers amid firings and resignations that have rocked her department. Bondi already has agreed to an outside probe of the dismissals of two attorneys who were leading foreclosure fraud investigations. And another employee resigned in August after suggesting there were cases that weren’t being pursued due to politics.
Bondi and some of her aides have brushed aside the criticism as the complaints of disgruntled employees. She said she’s restructuring her office to bring in lawyers willing and ready to go to court. The move includes recruiting former prosecutors to crack down on fraud in Florida.
“The philosophy of this office is to put the strongest lawyers in place to protect the consumers of the state of Florida and to get the consumers the absolute most maximum restitution,” Bondi said in a recent interview.
Bondi, who never ran for elected office before, has one of the most prominent jobs in state government other than the governor.
Bondi took over Florida’s ongoing lawsuit to block the federal health care overhaul from former Attorney General Bill McCollum. But she also inherited investigations launched by McCollum including a probe into several for-profit colleges.
Bondi says her economic crimes division has launched some 60 investigations since her swearing-in last January. Bondi has also filed a lawsuit that accused a New York bank of overcharging the state pension fund by millions of dollars.
“There’s a tremendous amount of fraud out there in the state right now,” Bondi said.
But in some instances she has seemed more cautious that McCollum.
She has yet to challenge any proposed utility rate hikes. Bondi also decided against having Florida join with several other Gulf states in a federal lawsuit against the owner of an offshore rig that exploded and led to a huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s Bondi’s dealings, however, with those involved in foreclosures that has generated the most controversy.
Bondi spoke out against a proposed national settlement between 50 state attorneys general and lenders that would have cut the principal owed by homeowners. She said she was opposed to any across-the-board reductions because she didn’t want to help people “who just don’t want to pay their mortgage payments.”
Then two attorneys _ Theresa Edwards and her colleague June Clarkson _ were forced out of their jobs in late May despite positive job reviews. Both women had been involved with investigations into law firms handling foreclosures on behalf of banks.
The dismissals came months after an attorney representing one of the companies under investigation – Lender Processing Services – complained that both had made “irresponsible” statements and had already “tainted the investigation” due to a presentation they had made to court clerks.
That same company wound up hiring a former top aide to McCollum who had a lead role in helping with the state’s lawsuit against the federal health care overhaul that has earned Bondi national exposure. Joe Jacquot, who worked in the office until May, has pointed out that he did not supervise the unit the two women worked in. He also sent a memo to McCollum as far back as October where he asked that he not be involved in any discussions involving the company.
Carlos Muniz, the chief of staff for Bondi, has insisted that Clarkson and Edwards were forced to resign due to their “shortcomings” on the job and that they warned ahead of time.
“That’s a lie,” said Clarkson, who along with Edwards, is now defending homeowners.
An Associated Press request for public records related to their job performance found little internal correspondence but it did turn up the LPS letter as well as a March letter from well-known Tallahassee attorney Barry Richard complaining about a probe into a company that buys gold.
Richard, who represented George W. Bush in the court battle over the 2000 presidential recount, complained the two women had a “single-minded determination to make a case against my client that began with a pre-judgment that my client was engaged in some type of wrongdoing.”
After Bondi came under fire from Democrats about the terminations she turned to fellow Republican and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater to head an investigation into the firings. That review by Atwater’s inspector general is ongoing.
Bondi insists she is aggressively investigating those involved with foreclosures. She says she has as many as 19 employees that are charged with investigating 10 different companies. Her office won a $2 million settlement from one law firm in March.
“We are focused on these foreclosure cases like crazy, we have done everything we can to strengthen them,” she said.
But Bondi’s office has conceded that it has not issued any new subpoenas to any law firms handling foreclosures since an appeals court back in April ruled that the attorney general lacked the authority to investigate. Bondi’s office decided against appealing the ruling to the Florida Supreme Court.
Tom Ice, a West Palm Beach lawyer who defends homeowners in foreclosure cases, said he hasn’t seen “any evidence” that Bondi is pushing ahead with investigations.
“She’s worried more about the banks than the homeowners,” Ice said.