Early on, Florida attorney general Pam Bondi shows ambition

TALLAHASSEE — Photogenic, earnest and affable, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi should be riding high after nine months on the job as one of the state’s most powerful elected officials.

She successfully brokered a deal among lawmakers, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Medical Association to crack down on prescription drug abuse, one of her top priorities.

She won a partial victory over President Obama’s administration in a landmark case, now in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, in which lower courts agreed with her that forcing Americans to purchase health care insurance is unconstitutional.

And she has recouped nearly $50 million for Florida consumers in lawsuits filed with other state attorneys general in cases such as deceptive marketing of prescription drugs and unfair collection fees for video rentals.

But these achievements have been weighted down by a series of actions during the past seven months that critics say shows she cares more about banks and big businesses than she does about consumers in perhaps the state’s most critical economic issue – home foreclosures.

‘Moral hazard’ issue

In March, in response to the investigation and settlement plan by all 50 states’ attorneys general to right foreclosure wrongdoing by lenders, Bondi was one of four Republican attorneys general who objected to forcing banks to reduce loan amounts for struggling homeowners. They said reducing loan principals for select homeowners would create a “moral hazard” and encourage homeowners to stop paying their mortgages.

“That was the big signal. That was the ‘I’m working for the banks,’ ” said Royal Palm Beach lawyer Tom Ice, who defends homeowners in foreclosure cases. “The moral hazard is not her job. She’s not the economic minister of Florida. Her job is not to worry about whether Florida is going to suffer economically by not enforcing laws.”

Bondi reiterated her stand last week after California’s attorney general quit the core team negotiating the settlement plan, saying it wasn’t going far enough to help homeowners or punish lenders. Bondi, also a member of that team, said she stood by what the team was doing.

Foreclosure lawyers fired

In May, two attorneys instrumental in the investigation of phony foreclosure documents in Florida were forced from their jobs by Bondi’s administration, drawing unwanted national attention and accusations that the firings by the Republican attorney general were politically motivated.

Under former Attorney General Bill McCollum, Theresa Edwards and June Clarkson were at the forefront of the state’s investigations into “robo-signing” – fraudulent or illegally executed documents – that later became the template for a national investigation into foreclosure fraud. They were initially given no reason for why they had to resign or be fired from their jobs in the attorney general’s Tampa office, but were later told an attorney representing one of the companies under investigation, Lender Processing Services, complained that they made “irresponsible” statements and “tainted the investigation” during a presentation they made to court clerks .

Edwards and Clarkson, who have since opened their own law firm representing homeowners in foreclosure cases, point to Bondi’s acceptance of at least $2,000 in campaign contributions from foreclosure processing firms that were under investigation, including $500 from LPS, and say they were fired because they were too good at their jobs.

“They’re not interested in pursuing these cases. That’s pretty obvious. There hasn’t been one subpoena or one deposition taken in any of these cases since we were let go,” Edwards said.

But Bondi said in a recent interview, “We’re trying to do everything we can to protect multiple cases and consumers who are defrauded. That’s a horrible problem in our state and we’ve strengthened that department.”

Last month, Bondi asked a fellow Cabinet member, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, to conduct an investigation of the women’s firings, which is continuing. Meanwhile, two Democratic state lawmakers are seeking a federal probe of the matter.

Critics say Bondi should have sought an outside independent investigation and that her GOP colleague Atwater is too close to her.

“I don’t know what more I could do,” Bondi said. “I could have left it with my inspector general. Nobody’s going to be happy. If there had been a Democrat in the Cabinet I would have given it to their IG. That’s what’s so frustrating when people say things that aren’t true.”

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