A former Washington law firm and one of its top partners did not violate Florida’s lobbying laws when appealing to the state attorney general, Pam Bondi, and her staff on behalf of corporate clients, the Florida Commission on Ethics has concluded after a 16-month investigation.
The finding came even though an outside lawyer who assisted in the inquiryconcluded that the distinction between lobbying and legal work is a “delicate area” and the lawyer targeted in the complaint, Bernard Nash, would probably have been better off if he had “registered as a lobbyist and then freely advocated for his client.”
Ms. Bondi, the ethics commission investigators said, declined to answer any questions about the matter, as “her staff advised that due to her busy schedule and heavy workload, she would be unavailable for an interview.”
The investigation began in January 2015 in response to a series of articles in The New York Times that examined the increasing efforts by a wide range of corporations to influence state attorneys general, whose offices have in recent decades collected billions of dollars in settlements from corporations targeted for legal action.
Corporations are hiring lawyers like Mr. Nash to intervene with attorneys general to try to prevent them from taking action or to shut down investigations.
Lawyers who handle this kind of business rarely register as lobbyists, even though in many cases they also work on general policy matters, like urging state attorneys general to intervene with the federal government on environmental regulations that their corporate clients oppose, The Times found.
A Florida resident filed the complaint, alleging that Mr. Nash and his former firm, Dickstein Shapiro, which is now defunct, had violated Florida lobbying laws by trying to influence Ms. Bondi.
The firm’s clients at the time under potential attorney general scrutiny included Accretive Health, a Chicago-based health care company; Bridgeport Education, a for-profit college; and Herbalife, a nutritional beverage company, the Florida investigation confirmed. Ethics investigators also documented instances in which Mr. Nash and lawyers at his firm contacted Ms. Bondi or others at her office on behalf of a client, even before any investigation by the state had been undertaken.
The investigators confirmed that Mr. Nash had repeatedly invited Ms. Bondi and her top aides in the attorney general’s office to dinners his firm organized at various national conferences that attorneys general attend, and that he and other lawyers at his firm had contributed money to her political campaign accounts.
The Times separately detailed efforts by Mr. Nash and his colleagues at Dickstein to raise the national political profile of Ms. Bondi, a rising star in the Republican Party, even as the firm was representing companies being investigated by her office.
Mr. Nash, during an interview with the state investigators, disputed any suggestion that he had violated the state ethics rules, arguing that he and his colleagues provided “proactive counsel” to its clients, not lobbying, meaning his firm often contacted attorneys general across the country, even if only one state was investigating a client, to tell the “entire story” before any other states joined in the investigation.
The commission, based on an initial investigation by its staff and then the recommendation by George T. Reeves, the outside lawyer it retained, concluded that the work Mr. Nash did could not be formally defined as lobbying.
The conclusion was based in part on the fact that it could not prove that Ms. Bondi had accepted free dinners or other personal benefits directly from Mr. Nash or his firm, which made contributions to the Republican Attorneys General Association. The group then covered Ms. Bondi’s costs for the gatherings at resort hotels. Other money it donated went to her political accounts, not to benefit her personally.
Mr. Nash, who has taken his state attorney general practice to the Philadelphia-based law firm Cozen O’Connor, did not respond to a request for comment.
Dickstein Shapiro in March ceased to operate as a law firm after its remaining lawyers moved to Blank Rome, also a Philadelphia-based firm.