Miami Herald: Black Caucus calls for trial lawyer group changes

September 28th, 2009

The Legislative Black Caucus called for a house-cleaning at the state's trial lawyer organization Monday after the attorney group acknowledged involvement in a racially-charged mailer sent to thousands of potential voters in the Jacksonville area.

Chairman Sen.Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, said the 24-member caucus was "deeply disturbed" by the mail piece showing President Obama alongside Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and black militants.

The piece, part of an absentee-ballot scheme intended to deter supporters of former House Speaker John Thrasher, also warned that voters could be confronted by "armed thugs,' when trying to cast ballots in the Senate District 8 Republican primary.

Thrasher ultimately won the Sept. 15 primary over three opponents.

The Florida Justice Association, the trial lawyer group, last week admitted the piece went through a pair of allied political committees working to defeat Thrasher, the Conservative Voters Coalition and Conservative Citizens for Justice.

"It is obvious from the mailer that the FJA, who created, approved and funded this mailer, has racially biased proclivities that are manifested in their thinking and actions," Siplin wrote in a letter Monday to FJA. "There was no need for FJA to invoke these racial images in an overwhelming Republican and non-minority district.

"Therefore, it is our strong desire for FJA to continue to uphold its integrity and clean house within its association of anyone who spearheaded and had any involvement with this controversial mailer and replace them with people who are morally sound and sensitive as it relates to racial issues," he concluded.

The caucus letter called the mailer "deplorable and the very worst nature of political campaigning."

The committees under fire were among a handful of trial lawyer and medical organizations involved on warring sides in the District 8 primary. Thrasher helped drive a range of civil justice limits through the Legislature during his two years as speaker, which ended in 2000.

Medical groups backed Thrasher, a former lobbyist for the Florida Medical Association.

Tallahassee lawyer David Ramba filed the legal documents establishing the lawyer-allied 527 committees, named after the section of the IRS code under which they are created. Such committees are unregulated in Florida after a court earlier this year ruled unconstitutional a requirement that they disclose their contributors and register with the Florida Secretary of State.

Republican campaign consultant Bill Helmich designed the mailer.

FJA executive director Scott Carruthers acknowledged having seen the mailer before it was sent to almost 90,000 households.

"We had no legal right or control of these committees," Carruthers said Monday. "But we could've and should've condemned the piece."

He added that FJA is "conducting our own independent, internal review," of the matter. "The important thing to remember is that we had no role in creating or approving the piece," he added.

Jacksonville Democratic Sen. Tony Hill said he had already been contacted by Tom Edwards, a trial lawyer from the city who led the Conservative Citizens for Justice and who has since resigned from the 527, denouncing the mail-piece.

"That's the end of the story as far as I'm concerned," Hill said. "It's a sad situation. But I don't think we have to throw the trial lawyers under the bus for this."

In his letter, Siplin also said the mailer was not consistent with the FJA's "long-standing principles and actions," involving civil justice and courtroom matters.

But even before their involvement in the mailer, trial lawyers apparently were on the wrong side of Siplin. FJA committees backed Siplin's opponent, Maurice "Doc" Woodard, in last year's Democratic primary, only to see the Orlando lawmaker win re-election easily.

Lawyers have lost a pair of powerful Senate allies earlier this summer, with the retirement of Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, and death of Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, whose seat Thrasher is expected to take following next month's general election against three write-in candidates.

The trial bar also is expected to lose at least three longtime Senate supporters next fall, when Sens. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview,  Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, and Victor Crist, R-Tampa, leave due to term limits.