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Lawsuit: Pam Bondi forcing contributions to unregistered charities

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Attorney General Pam Bondi is forcing businesses who settle unfair trade actions with her office to pony up millions of dollars to unregistered charities, according to a lawsuit filed last week.

She also is directing contributions to her Office’s own nonprofit, Seniors vs. Crime, which is a “conflict of interest,” the suit says. Two of its directors work for Bondi.

Orlando entrepreneur John D. Smith filed a petition for a “writ of quo warranto” against Bondi in Leon County Circuit Civil court. Such actions are filed against government officials to demand they prove their authority to perform a certain action.

The petition says Bondi “exceeded (her) authority” under the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (FDUTPA), aimed at protecting consumers and businesses from abuse.

“Our office has not been served at this point; however, after a preliminary review of the information you provided us, we believe these claims to be without merit,” Bondi spokesman Whitney Ray said in an email.

Specifically, between 2011 and 2016, Bondi’s office settled enforcement actions with 14 businesses in which they wound up paying more than $5.5 million to 35 unregistered charities, the petition says. Bondi was first elected in 2010.

That’s out of 55 businesses who paid $20.2 million “in forced contributions to charitable organizations” to settle cases in the same timeframe. An exhibit that included the names of the charities in question was marked “confidential” and unavailable for public view Monday.

One of the settlement conditions was contributing to a charity “as part of a resolution to end the (Attorney General’s office) investigation,” it says. Overall, there were 278 “Assurance of Voluntary Compliance” agreements.

In Florida, charities have to register with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “Ironically, a charity failing to register is deemed to have violated the FDUTPA,” the petition says.

Bondi’s office had taken action against Smith, who invented Storm Stoppers plastic panels as a “plywood alternative” to protect windows during storms, said attorney Scott Siverson of Orlando.

Smith filed a verified petition, meaning he declared under penalty of perjury that the allegations in his complaint are true. He wants a judge to prohibit Bondi from ordering payments to any more unregistered charities and to Seniors vs. Crime.

Siverson said his client was in Hawaii on business and unavailable.

Seniors vs. Crime, which is registered as a charity, is a “non-profit organization that operates as a Special Project of the Attorney General’s Office.” It aims to “reduce the victimization of senior citizens who are often targeted for specific crimes or scams based on their age,” according to its website.

Between 2011 and 2015, the organization received $485,500 in contributions resulting from settlements, the petition says. In the same time, “no other Florida charity received an amount close to (that).”

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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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