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Behind Florida’s payments to victims, links to lobbyists

June 4, 2018

FILE - In this Feb. 23, 2018, file photo, Florida Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran speaks at a press conference on school safety at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. Nearly half of the payments Florida lawmakers have made in the past two years to people harmed by the government were pushed by the Corcoran's brother, Michael Corcoran. The success of the well-connected lobbying firm has intensified a persistent debate among lawmakers as to who does _ and doesn’t _ get paid. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser, File)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — When Florida lawmakers began clearing a backlog of payments to victims and families harmed by government actions, their explanation for the dramatic shift was that it was their duty to abide by court rulings for the injured.

What wasn’t said was that, of the $37.5 million in claims bills approved over the past two years, $16.9 million — nearly half — was awarded to victims represented by a lobbyist who is the brother of Florida’s outgoing Republican House speaker, Richard Corcoran.

Of the roughly 100 bills filed in the House and Senate during the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions, 21 were approved — and eight of those 21 were represented by Michael Corcoran’s firm, Corcoran and Johnston. Altogether, the firm submitted 19 claims, giving it a 42 percent success rate.

Lobbying records show the Corcoran firm collected at least $89,000 in fees last year for its work on claims bills and is in line to receive tens of thousands more this year.

The success of the well-connected lobbying firm in winning approval for claims bills adds to a persistent debate among legislators as to who does — and doesn’t — get paid.

Michael Corcoran didn’t return a phone call requesting comment. Richard Corcoran didn’t respond directly to questions about his brother’s lobbying efforts, but said he was a firm believer that legislators should approve claims bills.

Claims bills are needed when someone sues state and local governments and a jury approves a payment above the caps enshrined in the state’s sovereign- immunity law. The law says state and local government cannot pay more than $200,000 to an individual or $300,000 overall.

But some Republicans in the past openly complained that lobbyists held too much sway in deciding which bills were approved. During the 2013 and 2014 sessions, legislators didn’t approve a single claims bill, in part due to opposition by then-Senate President Don Gaetz, who said it seemed bills were passing based not on their substance, but the effectiveness of the lobbyists behind them.

Rep. Jay Fant, a Jacksonville Republican and attorney, consistently votes against claims bills because of what he calls a flawed process.

“The way it is applied is just terribly imperfect,” Fant said.

Rep. Evan Jenne, a Democrat from Dania Beach who sponsored two claims bills this year, said both came from lobbyists.

“Every claims bill I’ve ever done, it’s been a lobbyist coming to me saying, ‘Would you mind carrying a claims bill?’” Jenne said.

Jenne said Jeff Johnston, Michael Corcoran’s partner, approached him about sponsoring a bill to compensate a family that sued the Brevard County Health Department for medical malpractice. The bill passed and was approved by the governor. Jenne said Corcoran’s is “one of the most effective lobbying firms” in Florida.

Nonetheless, the legislator said he doesn’t sponsor any claims bill — regardless of who represents it — without conducting his own research.

“I don’t want to do a bill I don’t believe in,” he said. He also said that he’s never felt pressure from on high, and that no one has ever told him, “We’ve got this, the speaker is on board.”

Rep. Cord Byrd, a Jacksonville Republican and an attorney, sponsored two claims bills during the 2018 session that didn’t pass — and he blamed lobbyists for their failure.

One bill would have authorized Volusia County to pay nearly $2 million to a Kansas woman who was injured and disfigured after she was run over by a county-operated truck while sunbathing on Daytona Beach. The bill was opposed by an insurer that covered the county. The insurer was represented by a lobbyist.

“We don’t have a consistent process,” Byrd said. “It’s cheaper to hire a lobbyist to go in year in and year out and kill a local claims bill than pay it out.”

Fant, who’s running for attorney general, said that if Florida is going to waive its sovereign immunity caps, it should have a codified, egalitarian process that doesn’t rely on who has the best lobbyist.

“This is something we should fix from a public policy standpoint,” Fant said. “I think we can do better in Florida.”

The two leaders of the Florida Legislature — both of whom are attorneys — haven’t directly addressed the issue of lobbyists, but say they feel strongly that claims bills must be addressed.

During his time as speaker, Richard Corcoran railed about the influence of special interests on government and put in place new restrictions on dealings between lobbyists and legislators. He’s a strong advocate for a measure that will be on the ballot this fall to prohibit public officials from lobbying for up to six years after they leave office.

But when it comes to claims bills, Corcoran said if a jury rules that the government “absolutely violated the rights of citizens, then it should absolutely pay those citizens.”

“Always side with those citizens over government,” he said.

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