Florida paid law firm for meeting with House speaker

- Blurring the lines between his role as an up-and-coming Republican legislator and his job as an attorney, the law firm of House Speaker Richard Corcoran once charged the state for a meeting with Corcoran in his capacity as a lawmaker.

Newly-released billing records show that in October 2014 the firm of Broad and Cassel charged the state's economic development agency ahead of a meeting between its affiliate, the state Division of Bond Finance, and Corcoran - putting the meeting in the crosshairs of a new review by the governor of potential conflicts of interest.

At the time Corcoran was not speaker but he already was viewed as one of the most powerful members in the Legislature.

The development agency, called Enterprise Florida, is at the center of a lively dispute between Corcoran and Gov. Rick Scott. Corcoran has railed against the agency - which has earned his firm hundreds of thousands of dollars - as a waste of taxpayer money. He has proposed shutting it down to the loud objections of Scott, who says it plays an important role in promoting Florida as a place to do business.

Corcoran, who has worked at Broad and Cassel since 2011 in its Tampa offices, told The Associated Press that he was unaware that his firm asked to be paid to prepare for the meeting with him.

But he said he attended the 2014 meeting as a legislator and not because he was required to do it for his job. He said he and all legislators are routinely asked by friends and colleagues to meet with people to discuss issues and problems they have with state government.

"Just because I work in a firm doesn't mean I can't do legislative aspects for people I know," Corcoran said.

The organization that regulates lawyers used to prohibit Florida legislators from working at firms that did business with the state. But that rule is no longer in place. The state's ethics commission in 2003 concluded that legislators could work for law firms that lobby the Legislature as long as the legislator did not share in any profits earned from the firm's lobbying practice.

Corcoran maintained that firm executives have been steered clear of any potential ethical issues, saying that "nobody even remotely crosses the line."

Invoices from Broad and Cassel show the firm charged a little more than $400 for the meeting. The firm did not respond to questions from The Associated Press about its billing practices.

But the administration of Gov. Rick Scott is raising questions about Broad and Cassel's work on behalf of the state as a potential conflict of interest.

The firm has earned nearly $300,000 in the last six years representing Enterprise Florida, the agency has said.

The Tampa Bay Times first reported last week that the firm has been working on behalf of Enterprise Florida, which gets the bulk of its money from the state.

Kim McDougal, the chief of staff for Scott, on Monday sent a letter to all state agencies demanding that they look at legal contracts with outside law firms, especially with those firms that have legislators on their payroll.

"The employment of a legislator by a law firm that conducts business with the state could easily be perceived as a conflict of interest," McDougal wrote.

McDougal's letter said that Scott would like to prohibit legislators from working with firms that do business with the state. She said if the Legislature did not change the law then the governor would pursue "executive actions" that she did not explain further.

In a statement released Monday evening, Corcoran welcomed the review. The speaker was encouraged that the governor "is engaged now in ethics reform" and appreciated that Scott was "pointing out that Richard Corcoran cannot by bought by reminding everyone" that he was proposing to completely eliminate the budget of one of his employer's clients, spokesman Fred Piccolo said.

Broad and Cassel is a well-established firm and has nine offices spread throughout the state. It has long had political connections with leading Republican politicians and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio worked for the firm when he was in the state Legislature. Corcoran was Rubio's chief-of-staff when the Miami Republican was House speaker.

Before Corcoran started working there the firm's Orlando office represented Enterprise Florida and other organizations run administratively through the economic development agency including the Florida Development Finance Corporation.

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