Monday, June 28, 2010


Four try to distance themselves from Akerman

June 15, 2010 By: Julie Kay

State Sens. Alex Villalobos and Dan Gelber are taking the lead in calling for a special legislative session to ban offshore drilling in Florida waters.

Yet the two work for Akerman Senterfitt, the law firm that has been retained to handle BP’s oil spill defense work in Florida.

Villalobos and Gelber both said they don’t think there is a conflict in their dual roles as attorneys with the law firm defending BP in court. Two other state legislators at the firm, state Sen. Joe Negron and state Rep. Joe Gibbons — are also of counsel at Akerman.

Villalobos, who chairs the Senate rules committee and sits on the policy and steering committee on energy, environment and land use, wrote to Akerman chairman Andrew Smulian on behalf of the firm’s four legislators on May 24.

He requested that the four be “walled off” and isolated from any “discussions, documents or activities of any kind between the firm and BP.”

He noted the legislators’ “of counsel” status at the firm means they have no ownership stake or access to the firm’s financial records and do not share in firm profits.

“By serving in the ‘of counsel’ relationship, the legislators who are associated with the firm are not involved in any manner with this client nor do we have access to files or information relating to the firm’s representation of BP,” the letter stated.

Read the letter

In an interview, Villalobos likened the situation to “a teacher voting on the education budget,” noting Akerman also represents the University of Miami and Jackson Memorial Hospital.

He wrote Smulian because “as the universe of what you are talking about shrinks, that’s where you have to be more careful. There aren’t that many companies involved in offshore drilling. BP is one of them.”

Gelber, a Democratic candidate for Florida attorney general, called any alleged conflict “a non-issue.” He has been one of the most vociferous voices against BP and offshore drilling.

“Akerman has over 400 lawyers and handles tens of thousands of cases,” he said. “I am of counsel to the firm and not a partner. I know nothing about the case, nor will I ever. I have publicly demanded that BP be held accountable for their gross negligence and for the pain they have inflicted on our state’s economy and environment, and will continue to do so aggressively.”

But Bob Jarvis, who teaches legal ethics at Nova Southeastern University’s Shepard Broad Law Center, said that not only is there a potential conflict for the four legislators but they may have to resign from Akerman.

“I don’t think there’s any question that right now you do not want to be associated with BP if you’re in the political arena,” he said. “It’s certainly something an opponent would try to use against you.

“Let’s face it,” Jarvis said, “right now BP is the punching bag and the devil. It wouldn’t surprise me if they have to resign from the firm.”

Akerman’s hiring by BP is an example of why it’s often better for lawmaker-lawyers to have their own firms, Jarvis said.

“This is always the problem when you look for a law firm and you have your own agenda,” he said. “They may clash. We’ll have to see how it plays out.”

A spokesman for Republican Lt. Gov. Jeffrey Kottkamp, who is challenging Gelber in the attorney general’s race, did not return calls for comment.

Julie Kay can be reached at (305) 347-6685.

No comments: