Behind Florida’s payments to victims, links to lobbyists

AP News by Gary Fineout

June 4, 2018

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.

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