Landmark AG sunshine bill gets through Senate, waiting on House

John O'Brien Apr. 29, 2009, 4:20pm



TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Legal Newsline) - What the business community is calling potentially the strongest sunshine law in any state attorney general's office is awaiting approval by Florida House Speaker Larry Cretul.

Cretul has the ability to call for a vote on a bill that would require more transparency in the Florida Attorney General's Office, and the chief of Attorney General Bill McCollum's staff is hoping he does before the end of the Legislative session.

Joe Jacquot says McCollum already abides by the regulations concerning the hiring of outside counsel set forth in the bill but wants to see them become permanent.

"The Attorney General would like to see the bill become law and the business community has said it would like to see the same," Jacquot said. "Clearly, he has the authority to limit contingency fee contracts, and we have an internal rule that does the very thing the legislation does.

"He's made those wise decisions and says if it is good government for him, then it is good government for every other attorney general. That's the difference with Bill McCollum. He's willing to make a good government stand for future attorneys general."

Among the regulations set forth are a cap on attorneys fees in contingency fee cases, the requirement of time sheets to determine how much work the outside counsel performed, the availability to the public of any contingency fee contract and a document signed by the attorney general everytime outside counsel is hired stating its help is essential to winning the case.

The original bill made it through the House of Representatives but was amended by the Senate. Sen. Dennis Jones, a Republican, pushed the amendment, which would allow private attorneys to earn more than the cap system allows.

The system provides a certain amount of attorneys fees for each tier of an award or settlement and allows a maximum of $50 million. The amendment says the caps may be exceeded if the attorney general determines if there were exigent or unusual circumstances or specialized legal knowledge or experience was needed.

If the attorney general makes that motion, then a majority of Florida's cabinet (governor, attorney general, chief financial officer and agricultural commissioner) must vote with the attorney general to make it happen.

Jacquot said what "a majority" means with a four-person vote may be up for debate.

Cretul, a Republican, must order a vote on whether the House will accept the bill with the new amendment. He threw Rep. Julio Robaina off the bill's committee for adding an amendment, though his differed from the Senate amendment.

Robaina's amendment did not provide for a vote by the Cabinet.

"The bill passed out of the Senate today is the strongest bill in the nation, bringing transparency and accountability in the Attorney General's Office's contracting with private attorneys," said George Meros, a lawyer and lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"But for speaker Cretul's leadership and courage, the bill would not be a national leader. The business community enthusiastically supports the bill."

The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform owns Legal Newsline.

House Communications Director Jill Chamberlin said the bill must be taken up before lawmakers adjourn on Friday. The session has been extended until next Friday, but only issues dealing with the state budget will be heard next week.

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