Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office this week responded to a lawsuit claiming she forces businesses to pony up millions of dollars to unregistered charities as part of settlements in consumer protection cases.
Deputy Solicitor General Jonathan L. Williams, writing on Bondi’s behalf, said in part that some of the organizations criticized by Orlando entrepreneur John D. Smith aren’t “require(d) … to register (with the state) before receiving contributions from governmental entities.”
Rather, they need to register as charities if they plan to “solicit,” or ask for, charitable contributions, Williams added.
Circuit Judge Charles Dodson of Tallahassee ordered Bondi to show why he shouldn’t find for Smith, giving Bondi 40 days to respond. Williams’ response, filed Monday, came on the 40th day.
“Florida law expressly and unambiguously authorizes (the Attorney General’s office to require) a settling party’s promise to make a contribution to a third party,” said the response to the order to show cause. “Nowhere in the relevant statutes does it say that these third-party entities must be registered charities.”
In 2015, Bondi’s office launched an investigation against Smith, who invented Storm Stoppers plastic panels as a “plywood alternative” to protect windows during storms. He was one of many companies that chose to settle in what’s known as an “assurance of voluntary compliance.”
Smith filed a petition for a “writ of quo warranto” in Leon County Circuit Civil court, saying Bondi “exceeded (her) authority” under a state law aimed at protecting consumers and businesses from abuse.
Some of the unregistered charities that 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 wrongly 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.
“Seniors vs. Crime was created in 1989 by then-Attorney General Bob Butterworth,” Williams countered. “Since 2002, OAG (Office of Attorney General) employees have consistently served on the organization’s board. In keeping with that close historical relationship, OAG and Seniors vs. Crime share a common interest—protecting Florida’s senior citizens against fraud.”
“(A)bundant authority holds that such eminently laudable public service does not run afoul of applicable ethical requirements,” he added. 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, the quo warranto petition says.
Moreover, Williams said Smith doesn’t have standing to challenge Bondi: “The Legislature has not authorized third-party challenges to the voluntary settlement agreements at issue here, and it would be unprecedented to permit such challenges.”
In a previous statement, Bondi called the legal action “meritless” and “harassment.” A next hearing in the case was not docketed as of Tuesday.