There is no doubt that Florida legislators have seen the recent series of editorials (one, two, three) in the Wall Street Journal outlining the latest national disgrace for the plaintiffs’ bar – pay-to-play scandals involving state officials across the country.
The stories are classic old-style politics: a special interest (private plaintiffs’ lawyers) make campaign contributions to state officials (in this case, attorneys general and one governor), and in return are hired with lucrative contingency fee contracts (typically resulting in multi-million dollar paydays) in deals done behind closed doors and often without competitive bids.
While the Wall Street Journal’s series highlighted the problem states, it extolled Florida’s push to reform these contingency fee agreements thanks to Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, who doesn’t believe in doing the public’s business the shady, behind-closed-doors, pay-to-play way. General McCollum has championed legislation that would require him and future Florida AGs to do the public’s business, believe it or not, in public.
Not only would the Transparency in Private Attorney Contracts (TiPAC) legislation require future Florida AGs to do open bidding on lawsuit contingency fee contracts, it would cap attorneys’ fees at $50 million.
As with all legislation, the TiPAC bill has been a political football as it worked its way through the Florida legislature. It passed the House. It passed the Senate with amendments. But as with any legislation worth anything, there was and remains an ongoing fight from special interest groups (plaintiffs’ lawyers) to kill, amend, stall, and/or water down the bill.
The legislative process is always a little messy, and almost never results in a final bill that looks exactly like the original proposal.
And that’s where we are as I write. The Senate has inserted an amendment that would allow the AG to lift the $50 million cap on attorneys’ fees only with a majority vote of the cabinet.
While this may give some pause, let’s be clear: the TiPAC bill, even with this amendment, is a major victory for those seeking to eliminate back-door deals, no-bid contracts and needless lawsuits.
Requiring a majority vote of the Florida cabinet maintains a check on the state attorney general and preserves the intent of the bill to stop the AG’s office from being used as a political payback machine and a piggy bank for Florida’s plaintiffs’ lawyers.
The Florida legislature has moved the TiPAC bill to the goal line. It should pass this legislation right now, before the game clock runs out.
Passage of this bill will put Florida in the vanguard of good, open and honest government. Failure to act will be a major missed opportunity. The legislature should punch it over the goal line.