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Pam Bondi ordered to respond to lawsuit over unregistered charities

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Attorney General Pam Bondi on Monday was ordered to file a written response to a lawsuit claiming she forces businesses to donate millions of dollars to unregistered charities as part of settlements in consumer protection cases.

Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, sitting in Tallahassee, also granted a request from Orlando entrepreneur John D. Smith to seek “discovery” in the case—that is, to get information from Bondi’s office in preparation for a possible trial.

Smith filed a petition for a “writ of quo warranto,” which demand government officials to prove their authority to perform a certain action. He did not attend Monday’s hearing.

Russell Kent, Bondi’s special counsel for litigation, objected to discovery, saying it was “generally not allowed” in quo warranto cases. He also said he intends to ask the court for summary judgment in the case, allowing Bondi to win without a trial.

But Scott Siverson, Smith’s attorney, said one of Bondi’s defenses is that donations to groups that weren’t registered as charities were OK because they were “unsolicited,” or not asked for.

“There is only one way for is to find out about that, and that’s to get discovery from” their office, Siverson told Dodson.

“I don’t know of anything that would prevent you at this time” from asking for records, Dodson replied. The judge also said a previous order he issued was “a little misleading” about whether Bondi needed to file an answer to Smith’s complaint.

“I don’t mind taking the fall for messing up on that,” Dodson said.

Smith had been investigated on a consumer fraud allegation by Bondi’s office in 2015. He invented Storm Stoppers plastic panels as a “plywood alternative” to protect windows during storms.

He says some of the unregistered charities Bondi makes settling parties give money to is her own “Law Enforcement Officer of the Year” award and various “scholarship funds designated by the Attorney General.”

Smith also said Bondi was improperly directing contributions to her office’s nonprofit, Seniors vs. Crime, which is a “conflict of interest,” the suit says. Two of its directors work for Bondi.

Since she first assumed office in 2011, Bondi’s office settled enforcement actions with 14 businesses in which they wound up paying more than $5.5 million to 35 unregistered charities, Smith’s suit says.

In a previous statement, Bondi called the legal action “meritless” and “harassment.” Siverson said his client just wants Bondi to play by the rules.

“This is a citizen’s lawsuit to make the Attorney General comply with the law,” he said after Monday’s hearing. “That, I think, is remarkable.”

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Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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