Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Reid Report:: Gelber pushes back on Aronberg, BP law firm story

June 29, 2010 · Posted in Elections, News and Current Affairs, Political News, Politics

Gelber vs. Aronberg for attorney general: blue on blue crime is way before its time...

Dan Gelber is pushing back hard against his Democratic primary opponent, Dave Aronberg, over the Notorious B-P story. Gelber says Aronberg is pulling a political fast one, trying to take credit for getting Gelber to resign from the law firm, Akerman Senterfitt, after it became public that the firm will be representing BP.

Gelber told me that at the time Aronberg’s team reached out to the media, calling on him to resign, he had already done so (last Thursday), and that he had made the decision to leave the firm weeks earlier. He says Team Aronberg must have known he had left the firm, because his name had already been taken down from the firm’s website by the time Aronberg called on him to resign Monday evening. Gelber says he has made no secret of his intention to resign from the firm, since learning that it would be taking BP on as a client, but that he didn’t “hold a press conference about it” because he thought it best to inform the firm and his clients first. He pointed out that the firm has “500 lawyers” and that given his duties in the state Senate, he isn’t involved in the day-to-day operations of the firm, and that as an “of counsel” to Akerman, he is not a shareholder or associate, and never had any conflicts of interest.

“I think what Dave did was a pretty cheap shot, and pretty sophomoric,” Gelber told me. “Dave heard I had resigned and then called for me to resign. … I think he’s listening to his PR guys and not his better angels.” And he added: “It’s not just a political stunt, it’s really politicizing a tragedy for his own ambition. He knew I had already resigned, and now he’s trying to get some credit for it.”

I’m reaching out to Team Aronberg for their response, and to find out what Aronberg knew about Gelber’s plans, and when.

What’s problematic for Gelber is an interview he gave to the Daily Business Review on June 15 in which he called Akerman’s BP representation a “non-issue.” He explained to me that in that interview, he was specifically talking about anti-offshore drilling legislation he was championing with fellow Akerman “of counsel” (a fancy term for a lawyer with a non-day-to-day relationship with a law firm,) Sen. Alex Villalobos. The article, by Julie Kay, indicates the four Florida lawmakers who are “of counsel” to the firm (the others are State Sen. Joe Negron and State Rep. Joe Gibbons), took steps to “wall themselves off” from anything related to BP in May, in anticipation of calling for a summer special session on drilling. From the June 15 DBR piece:

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.

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.”

That letter, on which Gelber was cc’d, was sent to Akerman on behalf of the four “of counsel” state Senators on May 24th.

Reporter Julie Kay broke the story about Akerman being hired by BP on June 15th, though the St. Pete Times didn’t seem to pick up on the fact that BP had hired Akerman to represent it in civil litigation on June 20, nearly a month after the fact.

Gelber resigned from the firm on June 24, and his campaign manager, Christian Ulvert announced it publicly on June 28, (yesterday evening,) the same evening Aronberg called on him to resign. Gelber says that by then, his name had already been taken down from the firm’s website. But the reaction from the blogosphere and mediasphere was that Aronberg had scored one on Gelber. And Gelber, a favorite of the netroots for years and a fierce opponent of BP, is not amused.

Gelber’s point is that he was already taking steps to unwind himself from the firm, which would have been completed by July 1st. But because he only publicly walked after the BP contract went public, and announced it so abruptly after Aronberg went public with a resignation demand, he handed Aronberg an opportunity, cheap shot or not. I have no idea whether Aronberg actually knew about Gelber’s resignation plans (I’m efforting to find out,) but I do know that politicians who don’t take advantage of easy opportunities like this one generally lose elections. And this primary will likely be low turnout, with lots of voters under-voting by ticking the top of the ticket boxes (Senate and governor) only, so a few thousand votes could decide it. Also, neither candidate is spending money yet, so both will be relatively unknown to Democratic voters (both are also from South Florida, which doesn’t help in a state with 10 media markets, the largest which is Tampa.) If the Gelber-BP meme starts to stick, well … that’s the reason Gelber is pushing back so hard.

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