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Senate keeps DC law firm hired to fight redistricting -- to fight the Florida House

Joe Negron Richard CorcoranWhy would Florida's Senate president spend $71,600 on a Washington D.C.-based legal firm with no offices in Florida to represent them in legal battles over the Florida Constitution, and with the Florida House?

That's the obvious question for Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who has signed two contracts, and assumed a third, from former Senate President Andy Gardiner, with Sidley Austin, a mega-firm in D.C. with offices across the globe -- except Florida.

Negron signed the third contract with the firm on Nov. 18, shortly after House Speaker Richard Corcoran disclosed rules that will bind the Senate to an unprecedented budget protocol, complete with disclosure requirements and prohibitions on recurring line items.

"This is a very unique area of the law given that it is unprecedented for one chamber to promulgate rules that would purportedly control the actions of another chamber,'' Negron told the Herald/Times said. "Those are issues we can look to precedence from the United State Supreme Court and to Florida courts."

He said he has authorized Sidley Austin to advise the Senate on the House rule relating to the appropriations process and it is "looking at the legal relationship and separation of powers."

"I believe their firm has expertise not only that is beneficial to us but has also done work in other states and brings a national perspective that brings significant value to the Senate and how we navigate the matter,''

The firm recently drafted a brief to challenge the House rules in court. Negron has refrained from filing that action, saying instead negotiations are ongoing.

"The House and the Senate are negotiating to work out quickly a joint budget rule that promotes transparency and a good process,'' he said. "We are continuing to talk."

Unlike the House, whose lawyers do not believe that a draft lawsuit is shielded from Florida public records law, the Senate refuses to release a draft copy of its work.

The Sidley Austin contract is to offer the Senate, "general advice," at rates of  $945 an hour fee for lead lawyer Jonathan Cohn and junior attorneys Benjamin Beaton and Eric McArthur for $785 and $700 respectively.

The eye-popping rates have raised the ire of the leaders in the Florida House and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who has turned his taxpayer-funded legal staff into a home-made litigation machine.

Citing Corcoran "in his individual capacity and as Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives" the House has filed actions asking the court to issue a writ of quo warranto to Visit Florida, the governor's agency, forcing it to disclose its $1 million contract with rapper Pit Bull. It drafted but never filed a quo warranto lawsuit against the Florida Supreme Court for allowing retired Justice James E.C. Perry to complete deliberations on cases that the court had failed to rule upon before his Dec. 30 retirement.

And they have drafted an unfiled quo warranto lawsuit against Lottery Secretary Tom Delacenserie, alleging he violated state law when he signed a contract in June obligating the state to pay more to gaming systems vendor IGT than the Legislature had authorized.

In House press releases and draft briefs on their pending litigation, the House notes it is relying solely on in-house lawyers to do its legal work -- an obvious contrast to the Senate and Scott administration which has spent millions on outside law firms during the governor's six years in office.

(A Herald/Times review of legal expenses paid to outside firms by the governor's office found $53 million in expenses paid to date between January 2011 and December 2016. The data is available on the chief financial officer's web site.)

Negron said he was not initially involved in hiring Sidley Austin when it was given its first Senate contract in Feb. 2016.

Gardiner, R-Orlando,in consultation with Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, wanted to have an "extra set of eyes to advise the Senate on the specific issue of what the Senate's options were with regard to further consideration of orders with regard to redistricting," Negron explained in an interview.

They had to decide whether to appeal the ruling from the Florida Supreme Court and, Negron said, they considered several firms "based on their experience and track record in Supreme Court representation and understanding complex federal issues at the national level."

As result of Sidley's consultation, the Senate chose not to pursue an appeal, Negron said.

In October, when the Florida Democratic Party was suing the state over its voter registration rules, Negron authorized the firm to represent the Senate on the matter before a federal judge and in defense of the state.  he was not involved in hiring Sidley xx but he support it.

"Due to the emergent nature of it and the complexity of the issue...I wanted that firm, which we had a pre-existing attorney client relationship with,'' Negron said. The Senate also then hired GrayRobinson to serve as its local attorney.

Florida taxpayers spent $48,659 on legal fees for Sidley Austin's redistricting advice and $23,018 on the voter registration case, Senate records show. The firm has not yet billed the Senate for work on the potential challenge to the House rules.

Meanwhile, Negron has continued the contract with the firm to offer advice in redistricting -- which will not happen again in Florida until 2022.

Negron said he will be retaining the firm "as we begin preparing" for redistricting planning for the computer programs to handle the 2020 census.

"Their involvement in the short term will be minimal but it's my understanding that Sen. Galvano and Sen. Simpson will consult with them as they begin laying the groundwork for redistricting," he said.

He added that the work is needed "as a precautionary measure to make sure the Senate is in full compliance with precedence."

He said the firm would not have any role in advising the Senate or the Negron's appointees to the Constitutional Revision Commission which convenes this year could potentially take up redistricting reform.