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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Friday, Jul. 30, 2004 15 years ago

Coffee Talk (Tampa edition)

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This week's items: Finding says Colonial Bank did not violated the law last by dismissing Anthony GonzalezWilkes & McHugh PA listed in National Law JournalTwo attorneys help Family Justic Center receive $1.1 million grant

Coffee Talk (Tampa edition)

Round One to Colonial

A federal labor official has found no reason to believe Colonial Bank violated the Sarbanes-Oxley Act last year by dismissing Anthony F. Gonzalez as chair of its Tampa Bay advisory board.

Gonzalez claims he was fired for complaining to Colonial's Alabama-based holding company that Bay area Chief Executive Joseph V. Chillura and President Alfred T. Rogers were competing against their own bank. (See "Bank Shots," GCBR, July 23-29.)

Cindy Coe Laseter, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Heath Administration's regional administrator in Atlanta, ruled that Gonzalez didn't cite a specific violation of the law in complaining to Colonial BancGroup Inc. Neither did she find evidence of a violation.

Laseter says Gonzalez acknowledged shortly after his termination that he was fired on April 29, 2003. Since filing the OSHA complaint and two lawsuits last summer, Gonzalez has maintained that he wasn't terminated until May 12, 2003. His complaint letter to Colonial BancGroup Chairman Robert E. Lowder, which Gonzalez claims prompted Chillura to fire him, was dated May 8, 2003.

Gonzalez was let go because he demanded that Rogers be fired or he would leave Colonial, according to Chillura. Gonzalez has since become chairman at the Bank of St. Petersburg, which is moving aggressively into Hillsborough County.

Gonzalez has requested a hearing on the Sarbanes-Oxley claim before a U.S. Department of Labor administrative law judge. In a filing with the judge, Gonzalez says he warned Chillura numerous times that a finance company Chillura had set up with Rogers could be seen as taking loan business away from Colonial.

High profile

Wilkes & McHugh PA cornered the market on publicity in the most recent issue of the National Law Journal. The national legal publication focused almost exclusively on the Tampa-based litigation firm in a report on the nation's top 20 plaintiff law firms. Not one of the other litigation firms earned as much ink as the Tampa firm.

A full profile on the law firm contains comments from co-founding partner Jim Wilkes about the beginnings of the firm's nursing home litigation practice, which created a national cottage industry in that practice area. Since its first case in the mid-1980s, the firm has handled nearly 2,000 nursing home negligence and abuse cases.

Notwithstanding its battles over nursing home tort reform, the Tampa firm secured about $64 million in jury awards over the past two years. It now staffs 60 attorneys with offices in seven states.

Among the firm's successes, Wilkes & McHugh lawyers Kenneth L. Connor and Amy J. Quezon claimed a $10 million verdict this year in Hinds County (Miss.) Circuit Court, over substandard care that cost a resident a leg. Last year, Brian L. Thompson and Joseph H. Ficarrota won $7.7 million in compensatory damages in Orange County Circuit Court over a nursing home death. The case settled prior to deliberations on punitive damages. Then last year in Leflore County (Miss.) Circuit Court, Conner and Frances McRae Turner III won a $6.5 million jury verdict over a resident's bedsores and malnutrition.

Kudos

Tampa attorney Michael Bedke and Richard Woltmann, executive director of Bay Area Legal Services, deserve a word of thanks for their work on a $1.1 million federal grant for a new Family Justice Center in the Hillsborough County. The grant is part of $20 million that President George Bush has earmarked for his Family Justice Center Initiative, a pilot project to prevent and respond to violence against women.

Besides the $1.1 million grant, the Tampa-based legal aid agency also received a $150,000 grant for domestic violence prevention work.

Bedke, a Piper Rudnick attorney who has served for years on the legal aid agency's board of directors, and Woltmann have devoted considerable energies to develop strategies to stop the cycle of domestic violence.

Green all the way

WCI Communities Inc.'s Venetian Golf & River Club, off Laurel Road in north Venice, is on the cutting edge as a "green" or environmentally friendly community.

Bonita Springs-based WCI partnered with Florida Power & Light Co. to install a hydrogen fuel cell at the Venetian to recharge golf carts. It is the first time a Florida builder-developer has partnered with FP&L on fuel cell research. In the past FP&L has only partnered with government agencies and universities.

FPL will monitor the performance activity and availability of the fuel cell over the next year for scientific research and educational purposes. Hydrogen fuel cells offer the potential to make electricity without combustion, and produce as a byproduct mainly water and heat.

Hall, for a change

Good-natured Steve Hall, a candidate for Hillsborough County circuit court clerk, is trying to stand out in a crowd. He's doing it standing out, literally, on Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa.

One of three candidates in the Aug. 31 Republican primary, Hall thought food would be a good way to grab a voter's attention. Hey, what about a spaghetti dinner? Hall didn't think so.

You see, over on the Democratic side of the ballot are County Commissioner Pat Frank and retiring Clerk Richard Ake's in-house lawyer, Helene Marks. They can't seem to come up with anything more original than putting on a spaghetti dinner.

On consecutive Sunday afternoons in July, Frank and then Marks heated up some water, tossed in the pasta, and fed supporters and contributors. They even held their events at the same location, the Sons of Italy Hall in West Tampa.

Hall opted for another ethnic delicacy. Thanks to an in-kind donation from a supporter, Hall says he and a group of young volunteers handed out Einstein Bros. bagels during rush hour one recent morning on Dale Mabry.

The treat won't please low-carb dieters, particularly. But at least Hall is not following the pack.

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