“I think it corrupts the Legislature and it corrupts the lawyers.” ~Judge Thomas Gallen
Thomas Gallen, a former Democratic state lawmaker and now a judge in Bradenton, is on a crusade to see an abolished Florida rule related to conflicts of interest for lawmakers reinstated.
Starting in the 1960’s, attorneys in the legislature were formally prohibited by Ethics’ Rules (59-31 & 67-5) from being employees or partners of lobbying firms. These Rules stated it was an “inescapable conflict of interest.”
But in 1999, the rule was erased, opening the door to allow elected state officials to keep their jobs with legal firms that lobby state lawmakers.
“It’s an amazing conflict of interest. I’m just shocked that this was repealed. Most states prohibit it,” Judge Gallen told The Capitolist.
And because that door exists, today there are at least six Florida lawmakers employed by such firms, including Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran.
Gallen was elected to the Legislature in 1966, serving until 1978. He says he knows there are ways to stop bills or to help them navigate through the process behind the scenes. Lawmakers can kill legislation with closed door meetings or simply not bring it up for a vote.
“I was rules chairman,” Gallen said. “I made the decisions over which bills were heard and which bills were not. If my law firm was lobbying, what a conflict I would’ve had. I think it’s unconscionable.”
Earlier this year, Gallen learned he had a powerful ally in Governor Rick Scott, who sent a letter to the House of Representatives praising the efforts to be more transparent. Also, in that letter, the governor suggested reinstating the rule to block lawmakers from working for lobbying law firms.
Even without the rule re-enacted, Senate President Joe Negron decided to resign from his firm, saying, essentially, he wanted to avoid the look of impropriety.
Gallen said that’s the right move.
“An attorney who’s also a lawmaker is responsible to the law firm’s clients, all of them. Whether the client is directly managed by the lawmaker doesn’t matter. They have a responsibility to every client. It’s a true conflict, obviously,” says Gallen.
Speaker Corcoran, employed at Broad & Cassel, has made transparency and ethics top priorities during his reign. These priorities have made Corcoran a target as he’s now been accused him of hypocrisy for not resigning, too.
Gallen says legally, Corcoran doesn’t have to do anything but announce any conflicts that may arise during votes on the House floor or in committee meetings.
“I think the law has to be changed. I don’t see how a lawyer could stay at a firm in good conscience,” says Gallen.
Those who support lawmakers working at lobbying firms point to provisions in state law and rules that address conflicts of interest. Also, banning attorneys to be lawmakers and continue their employment will stop well qualified people from serving citizens because they need to stay employed.
Gallen says his next efforts to get the rule re-enacted are going to be directed at the Constitution Revision Commission.
“I think the people of Florida, most of them don’t know this problem exists. If the law were back into place, we would know for sure that lawmakers would be voting for their constituents and not clients of their law firms.”