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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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 commission.

  3. Then, out of the blue, Commissioner Wally Elfers substituted another name for Stuart's -- a lawyer in the firm Conrad, Scherer & Jenne.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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."

  7. These kinds of political maneuvers are played out often across South Florida, although not always so blatantly as in Lauderhill.

  8. 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 agencies.

  9. 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.

  10. "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 in."

  11. Who gets the contracts and why?

  12. Contract Clout

  13. In the small world of powerful local law firms, Conrad, Scherer & Jenne stands out because of its high profile in the Democratic and Republican parties.

  14. 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 years.

  15. 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 soar.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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 race.

  19. 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 criticism."

  20. 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 government contracts.

  21. "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."

  22. Other law firms that land government work also sprinkle their money on political campaigns.

  23. 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.

  24. Some firms see contributions as the price of doing government business.

  25. 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 District.

  26. 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 politicians.

  27. 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 commissioners.

  28. 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.

  29. A primary beneficiary was Broward County Commissioner Scott Cowan, who collected $9,342 in his 1994 race. That included catering for a fundraiser.

  30. Critics of this practice, as old as politics itself, consider the contributions a way to buy access.

  31. "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 government."

  32. 'Not our Role'

  33. Some firms rarely give to political campaigns, yet snag government business anyway. They bank on their strong reputations or relationships with local officials.

  34. Among them is the monarch of municipal firms: Josias, Goren, Cherof, Doody & Ezrol.

  35. 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.

  36. "We think it's a conflict," said Jim Cherof, one of the firm's partners. "That's not our role."

  37. Still, Josias, Goren has been successful by combining decades of municipal experience with political clout.

  38. "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."

  39. 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.

  40. 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.

  41. 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 in Washington.

  42. "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."

  43. 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.

  44. The firm's other founding partner, Sam Goren, has fewer political ties but also delivers business.

  45. 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.

  46. 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.

  47. Family Lawyers

  48. Since the 1950s, Ryan & Ryan has made a legal career working for small towns such as Dania and Pembroke Park.

  49. 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.

  50. 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.

  51. 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.

  52. Like Ryan, the Lunny family's law practice also has deep roots in Plantation.

  53. 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.

  54. 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.

  55. But the legal business of Plantation stayed with the Lunny family.

  56. 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, records show.

  57. Lunny discounts his father's sway over who got the city's legal business.

  58. "I don't think my dad was involved in any way in that," Lunny said.

  59. Even so, the father -- and by extension the son -- were known quantities at Plantation City Hall.

  60. But most government attorneys don't have the advantage of being like family.

  61. They are outsiders who have to cultivate their relationships with elected officials.

  62. 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.

  63. 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.

  64. "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."

  65. Sun-Sentinel Copyright (c) 1998, Sun-Sentinel Company and South Florida Interactive, Inc.

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