A conservative Washington, D.C. law firm with deep political ties has become the courthouse defender of much of Governor Ron DeSantis’ culture war agenda, raising nearly $2.8 million in legal fees and taxpayer contracts to defend some of its top priorities.
One of the firm’s star attorneys, Adam Laxalt, lodged with DeSantis during officer training school and is now running for the US Senate in Nevada with his endorsement.
DeSantis’ administration has turned to law firm Cooper & Kirk to defend a controversial social media law, a ban on COVID-19 “vaccine passport” requirements for cruise ships and a restriction on criminals seeking to vote, according to an Orlando Sentinel review of legal contracts.
Most recently, the company signed a contract in late April with the Florida Department of Education for up to $295,000 to defend a lawsuit challenging DeSantis’ “anti-revival” law restricting teaching in class and employee training on racial issues.. Cooper & Kirk attorneys will charge up to $725 an hour in this case, depending on the contract.
In total, Florida has authorized nearly $2.8 million to date for Cooper & Kirk’s legal services.
The use of outside attorneys to handle complex litigation is commonplace in state governments across the country. But little attention has been paid to the legal firepower the DeSantis administration has deployed to defend a wave of lawsuits challenging the legislative priorities of the governor and his Republican allies in the Legislative Assembly..
DeSantis agency heads brought in attorneys from other firms to bolster their legal strength. Holtzman Vogel, which is led by GOP Super Advocate and Virginia State Senator Jill Holtzman Vogel, has been awarded more than $1.6 million to defend SB 90, which imposes new restrictions on ballots. postal vote.. The multinationals Eversheds Sutherland and Holland & Knight have also landed contracts.
Getting a full picture of the legal tab is difficult because no state agency compiles this information. But contracts and purchase orders posted online by state chief financial officer Jimmy Patronis provide some insight.
Legal bills totaled at least $5.8 million in just five cases, according to the Sentinel review. This includes $2.4 million for the Criminal Voting Act; $1.6 million for the SB 90; $848,800 for social media law; $572,042 for a ban on school mask mandates; and $422,304 for a ban on vaccine passport requirements.
Lawmakers have earmarked $1 million for legal challenges to DeSantis’ congressional redistricting maps, which are expected to reduce black and Democratic representation in the Florida delegation.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the process for selecting outside legal help. In a previous statement, Bryan Griffin, a spokesperson for DeSantis, attributed the state bills to “activist groups who are suing to accomplish their agenda by court order.”
State Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill for big-dollar out-of-state attorneys to defend legally suspect laws designed to boost DeSantis’ political profile. DeSantis is widely considered to be one of the GOP’s top contenders for president in 2024.
Legislative staffers concluded that DeSantis’ social media law may violate the First Amendment, but lawmakers passed it anyway. An appeals court recently ruled that key provisions of the law were unconstitutional, including the one that prohibited social media platforms from permanently banning political candidates. The state spent more than $848,000 with Cooper & Kirk in a legal challenge by trade groups representing tech companies.
“Fiscally conservative Republicans must be thrilled with this spending,” Polsky said. “Where are your values? What happens with fiscal conservatism when you deliberately pass bills that are unconstitutional and you know they will be challenged in court? »
Cooper & Kirk alumni include American senses Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, three federal judges and Noel Francisco, who served as Solicitor General during the administration of President Donald Trump.
With 19 lawyers, Cooper & Kirk is not large, but it is considered one of the most influential firms in Washington. Its founder, Charles J. Cooper, worked in the Reagan administration’s Department of Justice in the 1980s and started the company in 1996.
Cooper & Kirk has been on the front lines of prominent conservative battles over the years, such as defending a ban on same-sex marriage approved by California voters in 2008. Among its clients are the Boca Raton-based private prison corporation , The Geo Group, and the National Rifle Association.
In an emailed statement, Cooper said her company has a longstanding relationship with Florida, and it’s no surprise the state has hired her to work on legal matters related to Florida. Amendment 4, the voter referendum that restored the franchise to felons in Florida.
“Cooper & Kirk’s relationship with the State of Florida predates Governor DeSantis’ tenure, dating back at least 20 years when Governor Jeb Bush hired our firm to defend Florida’s felony election laws,” did he declare. “We won this case in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, so it’s no surprise that the State of Florida is coming back to us on a similar issue – the Amendment 4 defense – in 2020.”
He added that the company prevailed in the last criminal voting case and currently represents about half a dozen states in other cases.
Cooper’s legal resume also includes representing U.S. Senator Rick Scott and the Republican National Senate Committee in the 2018 Florida recount of his election victory.
Laxalt, a former Nevada attorney general, joined Cooper & Kirk as a partner in March 2019 after losing in the state gubernatorial election.
In November of that year, DeSantis’ office signed a $250,000 settlement with Cooper & Kirk in a legal battle over felons’ voting rights. DeSantis and Florida Republicans have taken the position that felons must pay all fines and fees before they can vote.
Laxalt’s signature is on the engagement letter. His name only appears in one other legal contract involving a friend of the court case supporting the importation of prescription drugs from Canada. Laxalt’s hourly rate is listed at $995, while attorney Michael Kirk listed his hourly rate at $1,245.
Payments to outside companies in the criminal voting case totaled $2.4 million, of which $475,000 went to Cooper & Kirk. In the end, the state prevailed with a federal appeals court ruling in favor of Florida.
Cooper & Kirk got more legal work after the criminal vote case, including a deal worth up to $1 million to defend DeSantis’ social media law.
Cooper & Kirk was awarded more than $422,000 for its work on a lawsuit filed by Norwegian Cruise Lines. This case involves a challenge to a Florida law that prohibits businesses from requiring proof of vaccinations called vaccine passports. The state is appealing a federal judge’s decision in favor of Norwegian.
Laxalt does not mention his legal work with Cooper & Kirk in his campaign website biography, and it is unclear if he is still employed by the company. He is no longer listed as a lawyer on the Cooper & Kirk website.
His campaign and law firm Cooper & Kirk did not respond to questions seeking to clarify his status.
Laxalt lists a total of $3.8 million in “partnership distributions” from Cooper & Kirk as revenue in financial statements filed in December and May. On the last form, he lists himself as an associate of the firm, but he describes Cooper & Kirk as a former employer in another section.
DeSantis endorsed Laxalt in a campaign ad, saying he’s known him since they were in the U.S. Navy together. The two were roommates at Naval Justice School about 17 years ago. DeSantis campaigned for Laxalt in April in Nevada.
That endorsement paid off in the Nevada Senate GOP primary, which Laxalt won on Tuesday.
During court testimony in October, Laxalt said he spoke to DeSantis with “regularity” and considered him a good friend.
DeSantis also has a legal background and graduated from Harvard Law School.
Attorney General Ashley Moody endorses the use of outside attorneys by state agencies. But Florida law does not require the governor and other state officials to report their legal expenses.
Moody, who is the state’s chief legal officer, does not track how much the state spends on outside attorneys. A 2017 survey by The Associated Press found that Florida spent $237 million on private attorneys over a six-year period, which averages nearly $40 million a year.
Florida agencies have in-house attorneys available for legal defense.
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The Attorney General’s Office employs more than 350 attorneys who specialize in everything from criminal appeals and Medicaid fraud to civil consumer protection matters.
Challenges to new laws are typically referred to two offices staffed with 15 attorneys, said Moody’s spokeswoman Whitney Ray. Eight other attorneys from the Solicitor General’s office are also available to help with these legal matters.
Forty-five companies are listed as doing business with the state in the 2020-21 fiscal year with an hourly rate of up to $825, according to the attorney general’s office.
Public agencies that request outside counsel may cite time commitments that exceed internal resources or a lack of legal expertise on staff.
Ben Wilcox, Research Director for the nonpartisan government watchdog group Integrity Florida, said greater accountability is needed when it comes to hiring private attorneys.
“There should be transparency on the amount spent on hiring outside legal help,” he said. “That should be something taxpayers should want to know.”