By DOTTY NIST
In action that was described by Walton County Attorney Mark Davis as a “clean-up,” the Walton County Board of County Commissioners recently took up contracts signed several years ago.
The action took place at the March 25 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting at the Walton County Courthouse.
On March 11, Miramar Beach resident Suzanne Harris had presented the BCC with a copy of a contingency fee contact negotiated in 2011 by then-Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) Director Dawn Moliterno. This was a contract with a team of attorneys for representation of the TDC on claims in connection with loss of bed tax revenue resulting from the BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Attorney firms listed as being retained on the contract included: Nix, Patterson & Roach; Harrison, Sale, McCloy, Duncan & Jackson; Harrison Rivard; Fowler White; and the Adkinson Law Firm as local counsel to the TDC.
Harris criticized the contract, charging that it had never come before the BCC for approval. She also expressed being “appalled” that Clay Adkinson of the Adkinson Law Firm had received money both through the contract and through serving as TDC attorney.
The Adkinson Law Firm receives $2,500 per month for Clay Adkinson’s services as TDC attorney. The law firm also received a portion of the contingency fees in the recent settlement reached with BP in connection with the TDC losses. In addition, the Adkinson Law Firm was on the team of attorneys representing Walton County in its economic loss claim and received a portion of those contingency fees also.
Questioned by Harris, the commissioners said they either had not been aware or did not recall that the Adkinson Law Firm had been hired as part of the litigation team to represent the TDC. District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander did recall that the Adkinson firm had been hired as part of the litigation team to represent Walton County with its claims against BP.
On March 12, Davis requested an opinion from the Florida Commission on Ethics as to whether the dual representation by the Adkinson Law Firm represented a violation “of any statute or rule.” No response to the request for opinion has been reported at this time.
Also, in response to questions raised about the 2011 contingency fee contract between the TDC and the various law firms, Davis recommended that the BCC pursue a “remedy” to any potential Sunshine Law violation, “whether I agree or do not agree that it’s a Sunshine Law violation.” The remedy was to have the BCC ratify the contract in public session retroactively.
Davis said he had not been able to find any evidence that the contract had previously been approved by the BCC. He volunteered to put the contact on the agenda for the March 25 meeting.
The contract appeared on the BCC March 25 agenda, along with a copy of BCC minutes from January 2011, which indicated that Moliterno, as TDC executive director, had been authorized by the commission to hire a law firm to represent the TDC with the BP claim.
Regarding that contract, Davis explained that at an April 15, 2011, special meeting, the BCC had adopted a resolution to account for revenue from BP obtained through the law firms’ representation and had executed a partial settlement agreement in connection with those funds.
Also on the agenda was an agreement between Walton County and the law firms referenced at the previous BCC meeting. Davis explained that at the April 15, 2011 special meeting , the BCC had also voted to approve a bid from Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles and the Adkinson law firm to represent the county’s claims against BP, along with a contract in the commissioners’ packet, even though the contract had been blank at the time.
On the March 25 agenda, as well, were copies of agreements executed by Lynn Hoshihara, former county attorney, in 2010 and 2011 with the Adkinson Law Firm for outside legal counsel on a general basis and in the areas of land use and litigation, along with a contract providing for the law firm to advise the TDC. Upon being appointed as interim attorney by the BCC, Hoshihara had been directed to obtain outside legal counsel as needed for assistance with her duties.
Davis explained that the only contract with the county through which the Adkinson Law Firm is currently operating is the one with the TDC. Upon Hoshihara’s resignation, he said, she had come before the BCC on Dec. 14, 2011, to have the contract changed from her name into that of the county, which was approved on that date. Davis said that for this reason he was not requesting ratification of this contract.
Addressing the BCC at the March 25 meeting, Don Riley of the WCTA commented that the attorneys involved “should have ensured” that the contracts came before the BCC. He recommended that the commissioners who had not been on the board at the time the contracts were signed should abstain from voting on ratification of the contracts. “There are conflicts of interest in this,” Riley added.
Greater Driftwood Estates resident Alan Osborne agreed, encouraging the commissioners to look at “ethical issues” before considering ratifying the contracts. He maintained that, as TDC attorney, the Adkinson firm should have represented the TDC in the BP litigation as part of their existing duties, not as part of the team of attorneys.
“You can’t wear two hats,” Suzanne Harris later complained, charging that the Adkinsons had done the TDC a disservice by representing it and the county in the BP litigation.
Davis noted that he had requested the ethics opinion and maintained that the ethics matter could be separated from a decision on ratifying the contracts.
Clayton Adkinson, law partner and father of Clay Adkinson, called Harris’ allegations against his firm “a vendetta” and the result of her being angry about having to pay the firm for their legal fees as the result of a complaint that she had filed against former County Commissioner Scott Brannon. Brannon had been represented by the Adkinson firm.
Adkinson called it “ludicrous” to say that the dual representation by the firm was a conflict, maintaining that there were a number of similar arrangements both in the county and other areas of the Panhandle with other local counsel in the litigation with BP. He was proud of the settlement that his firm was able to help obtain from BP for the TDC.
The two contingency contracts with Walton County and with the TDC in connection with the BP claims were ratified in a 4-0 vote. District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows abstained from voting, stating that she had not been on the board at the time and that she had an ethical conflict in connection with the votes.
Also at the March 25 BCC meeting, Davis presented a report on some photographs that Harris had given to the BCC two weeks earlier showing Moliterno and Scott Brannon at the time they were county officials, along with Clay Adkinson, at a sporting event in Atlanta. Harris had raised the question of who had paid for the trip. According to Davis’ report, in a meeting with the Adkinsons he had viewed receipts in connection with the trip which had satisfied him that Adkinson and Brannon had paid their own way. He said he had had no contact with Moliterno.
Davis received direction to get in contact with Moliterno also. He agreed to do so but reminded the BCC that he does not have subpoena power.
By DOTTY NIST