In Florida, the Legislature has to approve court awards – beyond a capped amount – for lawsuits alleging wrongdoing by a state or local agency.
And 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.
But Tallahassee reporter Gary Fineout began hearing that the surge in payouts, which amounted to tens of millions of dollars, also had to do with plaintiffs hiring lobbyists. So, he began digging into public and legislative records and confirmed the influence of lobbyists, and of one lobbyist in particular: the House speaker’s brother.
Gary complied an Excel spreadsheet of all the claims bills in recent years, as well as an accounting of fees paid to lobbyists who shepherded the bills. The data showed conclusively that claims lobbied by the speaker’s brother had a substantial rate of success. 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 Michael Corcoran, brother of Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran.
Gary also spoke to several lawmakers who conceded the role of lobbyists in getting these types of bills passed. On the flip side, lobbyists hired by insurance companies also sometimes manage to kill claims bills to prevent big payouts, Gary’s story found. “It’s cheaper (for the insurance company) to hire a lobbyist to go in year in and year out and kill a local claims bill than pay it out,” one lawmaker was quoted as saying.
Another lawmaker, also a candidate for attorney general, said the process needs fixing, and 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.
Fineout’s story received extensive play, including a rare banner headline atop A1 for the AP in the state's largest newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times. The Sun-Sentinel newspaper said in an editorial that “Florida owes thanks to Gary Fineout ... for shedding light on a dark side of Florida government.” And the Orlando Sentinel carried a commentary titled “Florida forces victims to hire lobbyists. That’s just sick,” quoting extensively from Gary’s article.
“Florida owes thanks to Gary Fineout ... for shedding light on a dark side of Florida government.”
South Florida Sun-Sentinel editorial board, June 7, 2018
For work that South News Director Ravi Nessman called a “perfect example of the kind of tough, accountability reporting that we prize so much from our statehouses,” Fineout wins this week’s Best of the States award.