Monday, January 9, 2012

Investigation clears attorney general's office in lawyers' firing

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's office has been cleared of wrongdoing in the May ouster of two employees widely lauded for their foreclosure fraud investigations.

The state inspector general released an 84-page report Friday detailing its findings during a five-month review of the forced resignations of former Assistant Attorneys General Theresa Edwards and June Clarkson.

The report concludes that no laws or policies were violated in terminating Edwards and Clarkson, and that they were dismissed because of their "poor judgment and lack of independent investigation on high-profile foreclosure mill cases."

The duo was responsible for a $2 million settlement reached last year with the foreclosure law firm of Marshall C. Watson in Fort Lauderdale and received high marks in evaluations from their direct supervisor.

But others in the attorney general's office, including Deputy Attorney General and Chief of Staff Carlos Muniz, and Director of Economic Crimes Richard Lawson felt differently. Both were hired last year when Bondi took office and said Edwards and Clarkson were given the option to resign or be fired because of a "failure to improve after multiple warnings."

The uproar that followed the dismissals, which included concerns that they were politically motivated, pushed Bondi in August to request the independent query by the inspector general of the Florida Department of Financial Services.

At least 10 people were interviewed and dozens of others named in the report, including Palm Beach County homeowner advocates Lisa Epstein and Lynn Szymoniak. Szymoniak was featured last year in a 60 Minutes report on foreclosure fraud.

In a Friday press release, Bondi emphasized other areas of the report that raised concerns about "disorganization," "non-responsiveness" to public records requests, "factual errors" in public presentations, "incorrect legal theories" and "sloppy" work.

"The report confirms the terminations had nothing to do with politics or outside influence," Bondi said. "Rather, it was about doing the right thing in defense of the people of Florida."

Edwards said Friday she was not surprised by the report's conclusion and questioned how impartial it could be when conducted by the inspector general of the Republican-led Department of Financial Services. The department is headed by Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

"I hardly thought they were going to come out and say, 'Wow, they were really great guys, what the hell were we thinking in firing them,'" Edwards said. "I can only hope that my evaluations and letters of certificates of appreciation I received prior to the new administration coming into office are a better measure of my performance than the report just generated."

Foreclosure defense attorneys and some lawmakers jumped to defend Edwards and Clarkson following the report's release. Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, and Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, had asked for a federal probe of the firings and said Friday they were disappointed with the state's findings.

"I kept an open mind on whether they would get a fair hearing," Soto said. "But the inspector general focused on the minutia in order to avoid a call on the big picture."

Sobel said the report "brings us no closer to answers" on why they were fired.

The report goes into great detail about concerns Lawson said he had with the performance of Edwards and Clarkson, including a widely circulated PowerPoint presentation they created that outlined alleged evidence of unlawful foreclosure practices.

"Clarkson and Edwards put forth an incorrect legal theory in the presentation," the report says. "They wrongly stated the mortgage is what determines who has standing to file a foreclosure action when it was actually the holder of the note who has standing."

Edwards, who was praised in an evaluation for being "instrumental in triggering a nationwide review" of foreclosure practices, said the presentation was reviewed and approved by supervisors.

Clarkson said she is proud of what she and Edwards accomplished.

"We did so much for not only the consumers of the state of Florida, but everywhere," she said. "We don't feel bad about anything we did."

They now have their own law firm in Hollywood.

Friday's report comes a week after Bondi filed a request for the Florida Supreme Court to weigh in on her authority to subpoena foreclosure law firms.

Subpoenas against the Law Offices of David J. Stern and the Boca Raton-based Shapiro and Fishman were quashed in the 4th District Court of Appeal, with judges ruling Bondi has no power to pursue firms under the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.

By Kimberly Miller, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Source: Palm Beach Post

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