Sen. Dan Gelber Dogged by Connection to BP

These days, politicians are probably better off in a sex scandal than tied to BP. That's why state Sen. Dan Gelber, who's running for attorney general, just can't seem to shake his connection to the company responsible for wrecking the Gulf.

Gelber, a Democrat from Miami Beach, used to work for Akerman Senterfitt, the Orlando-based law firm that's representing BP. He says he learned 

in early June that the firm was hired by BP. He says he then began making arrangements to resign.

"I've had some of my clients for 25 years, and I didn't want them to hear in the papers first that I was leaving the firm," Gelber said. "It took about three weeks to hand off my clients." In that time, Gelber says, he had nothing to do with the BP case.

But Gelber's opponent, state Sen. Dave Aronberg, says Gelber's employment at a firm representing BP could cause problems if the Attorney General's Office sues the oil giant. "How can the attorney general handle the case if the attorney general was a member of the firm defending BP?" Aronberg asks.

Gelber says a Florida Bar rule allows a lawyer who enters public service work to represent the state in matters that his former firm handled as long as the lawyer did not have intimate knowledge of those cases while acting as a public sector attorney. "There's not an issue," Gelber says, "because the rules lay it out clearly."

However, Florida Bar rule 4-1.1, which Gelber is citing while defending the Aronberg campaign's attacks, doesn't reference a private attorney going into public practice. Instead, it deals with a lawyers' competence, being sure they're prepared for cases and maintaining knowledge of the law.

UPDATE: Gelber's campaign called to clarify that the correct citation as Florida Bar rule 4-1.11, which states that a lawyer working for the government can't be involved in a case that he "participated personally and substantially" while working as a public sector lawyer.

Aronberg argues that another Bar rule, 4-1.10, states that a client of one lawyer at a law firm is seen as a client of everyone at the firm. That rule says that a lawyer from that firm "is vicariously bound by the obligation of loyalty owed by each lawyer with whom the lawyer is associated."

Besides, Aronberg argues: "Why did Gelber resign the firm if there was no issue?"

Gelber says his resignation was mostly for appearance's sake. "The reality is, I have been the anti-oil-drilling guy for a long time," he said. "I just don't want anyone wondering where my allegiances lie."

Voters may continue wondering until August 24, when they'll will pick Gelber or Aronberg in the Democratic primary. One of them will go on to face a Republican candidate, likely Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, in the November 2 primary.

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Eric Barton
Contact: Eric Barton