TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Florida has spent nearly a half-million dollars _ and could spend even more _ with a large, well-known law firm that has connections to both the Republican Party of Florida as well as Gov. Rick Scott.
Since August the state has paid nearly $400,000 to the law firm of Alston and Bird to defend a new state law that requires public employees to contribute 3 percent of their pay to the state pension fund.
The firm was hired at the urging of the Scott administration which asked Attorney General Pam Bondi to approve paying the firm hourly rates at $495 an hour or nearly $300 more than what is normally allowed.
The Scott administration and Bondi have defended the hiring of the firm, saying it specializes in the kind of litigation that the state is now involved in.
But the firm’s roster also includes a one-time business associate of Scott.
While not working directly on the lawsuit, a senior counsel with the firm’s Washington D.C. office is Thomas Scully. Scully is also a general partner with the New York investment firm of Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe. That’s the investment firm that this June purchased Scott’s shares in Solantic, a chain of urgent care clinics the governor started back in 2001.
Scully, who once led the Federation of American Hospitals, was appointed to the board of directors of Solantic back in 2008.
Scott last year valued his shares in Solantic at $62 million. He initially transferred his ownership interest to his wife’s revocable trust prior to taking office in January. But then Scott sold the shares amid questions as to whether he could benefit financially from state efforts to privatize Medicaid and require drug testing for welfare recipients. Scott maintained that Solantic would not seek state contracts and said he was just too busy as governor to spend time overseeing business interests.
Scott, the former head of the massive Columbia/HCA hospital chain, said that he has known Scully for 20 years. But he said on Tuesday that he didn’t know that Scully worked for Alston and Bird.
“I knew that he was with a firm in D.C. but I didn’t know the name of the firm,” Scott told The Associated Press.
Alston and Bird has offices in Brussels and across the nation, including Atlanta, but none in Florida. The firm is involved in a wide-range of areas, ranging from work it did as an examiner on the bankruptcy of Enron to lobbying in Washington D.C.
The firm conducted a forensic audit last year on behalf of the Republican Party of Florida that concluded that former Gov. Charlie Crist and former party chairman Jim Greer had misspent party money. Crist, who bolted the Republican Party last spring to run for the U.S. Senate as an independent, blasted the audit at the time and denied he let the party pay for vacations he took.
Federal campaign records from last year and early this year show that the Republican Party paid nearly $200,000 to Alston and Bird for its work.
Alston and Bird was first hired by the state back in early August after the Florida Education Association, other public employee unions and several individual workers asked a court to strike down the law that requires public employees to start contributing to the Florida Retirement System
Bondi’s office – which is responsible for defending the state in lawsuits – signed off on a request from the Scott administration to hire the firm and to pay it more than normal hourly rates.
“We thought they were best,” said Bondi when asked about it.
But State Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, sharply criticized the hiring and questioned why the state couldn’t at least hire a law firm that has offices located in the state.
“Did we have go all the way to D.C. to hire attorneys who get paid at more than twice the normal pay?” Rich said.
The contract between the state and the law firm caps the total compensation at $500,000. So far the state has paid out $391,000, a spokesman for the Department of Management Services said.
But Jason Dimitris, general counsel for the agency, said the state is likely to offer Alston and Bird a second contract since the first one only covered the trial at the circuit court level. Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford has not yet ruled on the pension lawsuit, but the case is expected to be appealed by the losing side.
Dimitris said that everyone involved in the litigation agreed on hiring Alston and Bird initially because of the “complex” nature of the pension lawsuit.