CASH AND CONNECTIONS
An analysis to determine the similarities between the modus operandi of
the Florida Bar and organized crime utilizing a Fort Lauderdale
Sun-Sentinel article on government lawyer legal fees.
The article is from the 1/8/98, electronic edition of the Fort Lauderdale,
Florida, Sun-Sentinel by staff writers Jenni Bergal and Jay Weaver.
- Paul Stuart thought he was a shoo-in for the city attorney job when he
showed up at a Lauderhill City Commission meeting in November 1996.
- After all, city officials had asked him to take the job temporarily,
and they had drawn up a resolution naming him to the post. On the night of
his expected appointment, Stuart even sat on the dais with the city
- Then, out of the blue, Commissioner Wally Elfers substituted another
name for Stuart's -- a lawyer in the firm Conrad, Scherer & Jenne.
- The firm was no stranger to Lauderhill. It had done insurance work on
the city's behalf. Its attorneys had contributed to the campaigns of at
least two city commissioners in recent elections. And the firm had ties
to Lauderhill's former mayor, Ilene Lieberman, who was close to William
Scherer, its managing partner. Lieberman's fiance, an attorney who heads
his own law office, occasionally worked with the firm on lawsuits.
- Stuart's 25 years of experience as city attorney for Coconut Creek, or
the fact the other firm had minimal experience in municipal law, didn't
seem to matter.
- Stuart was out. Conrad, Scherer & Jenne was in. Stuart said he felt
blindsided. "I was stunned," Stuart said. "This is what you get when you
try to help someone out and do them a favor in a political arena."
- These kinds of political maneuvers are played out often across South
Florida, although not always so blatantly as in Lauderhill.
- A Sun-Sentinel examination of the links between lawyers and
governmental agencies found that a clublike group of politically connected
lawyers monopolizes legal work in South Florida's cities and county
- Sometimes those firms have given substantial campaign contributions to
the politicians who hire them. Sometimes they have simply cultivated the
right relationships. It's all legal, though it troubles some who believe
the process should be more open for the benefit of taxpayers.
- "There's cronyism among them all -- a cadre of insiders who have the
right connections, have gone to the right fund-raisers and have made the
right campaign contributions," said Robert Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern Law
School professor who teaches legal ethics. "It's hard for others to break
- Who gets the contracts and why?
- Contract Clout
- In the small world of powerful local law firms, Conrad, Scherer &
Jenne stands out because of its high profile in the Democratic and
- Until the mid-1990s, the firm concentrated on insurance and health
care law. Most of its clients were corporations. But it did have one
political plum: it was general counsel to the tax-assisted North Broward
Hospital District, whose board is appointed by the governor. As such, it
was responsible for doling out millions of dollars in legal work to other
attorneys. Scherer, the firm's managing partner, was a long-time GOP
fundraiser and player in Broward County politics. When he landed the
district's contract, he had a close relationship with powerbroker and
developer Hamilton Forman, who chaired the hospital district's board for
- But after Democrat Gov. Lawton Chiles took office in 1991, he began
transforming the political makeup of the district's epublican-dominated
board. Scherer's firm faced losing millions of dollars in business. Its
contract was saved when Scherer brought State Sen. Ken Jenne, a former
Senate president and an influential Democrat, into the firm as a partner
in 1992. Scherer said having Jenne on board gave the firm substantially
more political and professional clout. Conrad, Scherer & Jenne kept a
grip on the district's lucrative legal business -- and saw its fees
- Its income for risk management work alone at the district rose from
$917,000 in fiscal 1990 to $1.7 million in fiscal year 1994, according to
a critical district audit, during a time when the number of claims
remained much the same.
- The firm branched out into local government law, picking up contracts
with 11 agencies, including the Broward School Board and Sunrise. In the
past three years, Conrad, Scherer & Jenne has reaped more than $9.7
million from local government contracts. It landed the job as Miramar's
interim city attorney in April and was appointed full time in June. This
followed the resignation of the previous city attorney, who had expected
to be fired by three newly elected commissioners who held a majority. The
three new commissioners had been championed by Dan Lewis, a former city
commissioner and political ally of Scherer's.
- In 1995, Lewis and Scherer had worked together against a proposed
penny increase in Broward's sales tax to pay for new school buildings. And
the following year, Lewis also hooked Scherer up with a homeowners' group
that was fighting a large home builder. Scherer's firm collected
substantial fees from a settlement in that case. Last June, after a
competitive bid, Scherer's firm was awarded the contract as city attorney
following a 3-2 vote. The firm beat out Becker & Poliakoff, which had the
higher bid. But Alan Becker, a lead partner in the losing firm, said
Conrad Scherer always had the edge, much like an incumbent in a political
- Miramar City Commissioner Lori Moseley agreed that, even with the
bidding, it was a fait accompli for Scherer's firm. "It was a given when
the three new commissioners came on board that they would hire this firm,"
said Moseley, who complained at the time that Scherer's firm lacked
expertise in municipal law. Though its partners and associates had years
of experience doing insurance liability and legal defense work for
government agencies, even Scherer acknowledged the firm's shortcomings in
municipal law. "I think it's in part true," he said. "That's a valid
- But Scherer said cities that hire his firm benefit from its wealth of
courtroom experience fighting lawsuits. Conrad, Scherer & Jenne, with 25
lawyers, has a mixed portfolio of government and corporate clients. And
commercial cases are considerably more profitable than the government
ones, he said. The firm charges corporate clients up to $300 an hour; its
rates for government range from $100 to $185. However, Scherer said, the
government contracts are worthwhile if lower-paid associates and
paralegals handle most of the work. The key to the firm's strategy is
having a large staff steadily billing substantial hours, he said. Another
key is having a partner with Scherer's political muscle to bring in the
- "Scherer's the rainmaker," said Tim Ryan, an attorney whose family
practices government law in Dania and Pembroke Park. Scherer's firm also
wields influence the old-fashioned way, by making campaign contributions.
In recent county elections, the firm, its partners, associates and spouses
have contributed at least $17,578. Often times, they gave the maximum
allowed -- $500 each. "I encourage our lawyers to get involved in the
(political) process because those contacts can help in business
situations," Scherer said. "But I don't think the (campaign
contributions) make much of a difference. It's tangential at best."
- Other law firms that land government work also sprinkle their money on
- George Platt, a lobbyist and former Broward county commissioner, is a
frequent donor to commission and school board members. He is a partner in
the Fort Lauderdale firm, Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, which was paid
$583,825 by local government last year, including the Broward school board
and Pompano Beach.
- Some firms see contributions as the price of doing government
- Becker & Poliakoff, for example, has a policy of giving $50,000 a year
to political candidates and another $50,000 to charitable causes. Among
the firm's clients are Palm Beach County and the Broward School
- Becker, who heads the firm, said he doesn't think giving money to
politicians buys government legal business for his firm, but he does
believe it creates "valuable political relationships." Greenberg,
Traurig, Hoffman, Lipoff, Rosen & Quentel also gives generously to
- The Fort Lauderdale firm was paid $560,710 by nine government agencies
in South Florida last year. In the most recent elections, it handed handed
out $33,642 to Broward and Palm Beach school board members and county
- Its financial faucet flows in two ways: a maximum $500 donation from
partners and a cluster of smaller $100 checks from associates and others.
As policy, the firm said it does not comment on campaign contributions.
- A primary beneficiary was Broward County Commissioner Scott Cowan, who
collected $9,342 in his 1994 race. That included catering for a
- Critics of this practice, as old as politics itself, consider the
contributions a way to buy access.
- "It's a conflict of interest, as far as I'm concerned," said Lloyd
Brumfield, vice chairman of Florida Common Cause, which has waged a battle
to reform campaign finance laws. "If I give you money and it doesn't
influence you, I'm not going to give it to you. It's bought-and-paid-for
- 'Not our Role'
- Some firms rarely give to political campaigns, yet snag government
business anyway. They bank on their strong reputations or relationships
with local officials.
- Among them is the monarch of municipal firms: Josias, Goren, Cherof,
Doody & Ezrol.
- Tight with a campaign buck, Josais, Goren and its attorneys have
contributed about $1,400 to county commission and school board races since
1993. The firm also bars its attorneys from contributing money to
candidates in cities it represents.
- "We think it's a conflict," said Jim Cherof, one of the firm's
partners. "That's not our role."
- Still, Josias, Goren has been successful by combining decades of
municipal experience with political clout.
- "Each attorney has his own expertise," said Rhonda Calhoun, vice mayor
of Coral Springs, where Josias, Goren is city attorney. "You have the
whole firm behind you."
- Josias, Goren earned $1.56 million last year from local government
contracts. It is city attorney in eight cities; most of that income comes
from Boynton Beach, North Lauderdale, Coral Springs and Pembroke Pines.
- The small, 9-lawyer Fort Lauderdale firm was founded by Steven Josias,
a Citadel graduate-turned-attorney who served as chairman of the North
Broward Hospital District in the 1980s.
- Josias is closely aligned with U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who over the
years has relied on him for political advice. He first served as Graham's
campaign chairman in Broward and later became the senator's legal advisor
- "He is a very political person," said Scott Frank, a former associate
at Josias, Goren who now works for a Tampa firm. "He's got power and is a
very engaging person in that arena."
- Josias also has close ties to Pembroke Pines, where he is city
attorney. His relationship with the city dates back 22 years, when he
linked up with former mayor Ron Villella, another Citadel graduate. And
it was Villella who brought Graham and Josias together.
- The firm's other founding partner, Sam Goren, has fewer political ties
but also delivers business.
- Goren joined the firm in 1977 after serving a brief stint as an
assistant attorney for Broward County. He's been able to transcend the
firm's Democratic profile, serving as general counsel to the Republican
Supervisor of Elections for about 20 years.
- These days, Goren appears to be more directly involved with his
government clients than Josias, who lately has been spending much of his
time traveling aboard his 58-foot yacht.
- Family Lawyers
- Since the 1950s, Ryan & Ryan has made a legal career working for small
towns such as Dania and Pembroke Park.
- A.J. Ryan, the patriarch, was Pembroke Park's city attorney from 1957
to 1990. His legacy continued with son Tim, who held the position for
about six months, and son Chris, the current city attorney.
- Chris Ryan and his firm were paid $49,451 last year. Tim Ryan, who
also works at the firm, made $17,661 as a part-time assistant city
attorney in Dania last year.
- Tim Ryan said a firm with a long history in a town understands
residents' concerns better than a relative newcomer. "The larger firms
are not so in tune with the community," he said.
- Like Ryan, the Lunny family's law practice also has deep roots in
- Donald J. Lunny Sr., an old friend of Plantation Mayor Frank Veltri's,
served as his city's attorney from the mid-1970s to 1991.
- His son, Donald Jr., followed in his father's footsteps. Fresh out of
law school, he worked for his dad while he was city attorney in the late
1980s. When his father retired, Lunny joined another firm.
- But the legal business of Plantation stayed with the Lunny family.
- Since 1992, Lunny and his firm have held the city attorney's post. And
in the last three years, they have collected $1.8 million from Plantation,
- Lunny discounts his father's sway over who got the city's legal
- "I don't think my dad was involved in any way in that," Lunny said.
- Even so, the father -- and by extension the son -- were known
quantities at Plantation City Hall.
- But most government attorneys don't have the advantage of being like
- They are outsiders who have to cultivate their relationships with
- In either case, government attorneys have to have a little of the
politician in them. They have to appease the egos of strong-willed
commissioners, yet know when to tell them no.
- It's a balancing act of legal smarts and political savvy. "The motto
of a good city attorney is take the blame and give credit to the elected
officials," said Margate City Attorney Eugene Steinfeld, who has held onto
his job since 1978.
- "In the final analysis, everything is politics. Whether it's politics
of the firm or politics of the city commission, it's all who you know."
- Sun-Sentinel Copyright (c) 1998, Sun-Sentinel Company and South
Florida Interactive, Inc.
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examining the modus operandi of the Florida Bar.
The home page of this Web site is entitled LEGAL
REFORM THROUGH TRANSFORMING THE DISCIPLINE OF LAW INTO A SCIENCE