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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 16, 2004 16 years ago

The People's Champion

From work on behalf of disaster victims to those abused by spouses, Michael Bedke is there to help - without a fee.

The People's Champion

From work on behalf of disaster victims to those abused by spouses, Michael Bedke is there to help - without a fee.

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

Hurricane Andrew pummeled South Florida, wreaking havoc in Miami-Dade County. It destroyed homes, leveled buildings. Lives were lost; others changed forever.

Michael Bedke wasted no time. Then chair-elect of the American Bar Association's Young Lawyers Division, Bedke acted on an agreement the group had with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which encouraged the lawyers to provide free legal advice to disaster victims on emergency matters such as landlord-tenant issues and insurance claims.

Only the Tampa commercial real estate attorney couldn't reach colleagues in Miami. No one at the ABA's Chicago headquarters had heard from the federal agency. FEMA, overwhelmed with the magnitude of the disaster, couldn't spare Bedke any time.

Meanwhile, Craig Clendinen - another Tampa lawyer with altruistic instincts - asked Bedke what he could do. They packed overnight bags, grabbed a couple gallon jugs of water and headed south in a van with one mobile phone to share.

"We were pretty naive," Bedke recalls.

Naive? Perhaps. But Bedke's actions in August 1992 probably best illustrate a highly refined vision of public service that has thrust him into the national spotlight, especially as an advocate on behalf of domestic violence victims. Just recently, the ABA elected Bedke, 43, to its board of governors. Following an anticipated confirmation in August, Bedke will represent ABA lawyers in Florida and Texas for the next three years.

"If you aspire to be a lawyer who truly makes a difference in peoples' lives and their community, then look at Mike Bedke," says Clendinen, a commercial litigator at Tampa's Bales & Weinstein PA. "It's true. We have so many great lawyers who do so much, but it's really been Mike's whole professional life to serve other people."


Because of such accolades, it might be easy to overlook Bedke's work as a real estate attorney in the Tampa office of Piper Rudnick LLP. This is a harried time for him: The commercial real estate market is hot.

"This may be the busiest I've ever been. I've got 20 active files I needed to do something on today," he says in a recent interview. "The smallest is just over $2.5 million (in total value). The largest is a hotel deal that is going to be just under $25 million."

In Miami's Coconut Grove community, for instance, Bedke represents a potential buyer who is making a bid for the upscale, 179-suite Mayfair House hotel. "On my desk right now I've got four to five hotels deals," he says. "This year I'll probably do a dozen to 15."

Closer to home, Bedke represents an affiliate of West Palm Beach-based Goodman Properties Inc. in the phased acquisition of the commercial-zoned portion of the Porter family's 5,000-acre Wiregrass Ranch in south-central Pasco County.

When completed, Bedke says, the Goodman Co. anticipates a development containing from 1.5 million to 3 million square feet of retail and office space. The land actually has entitlements for up to 5 million square feet of commercial space. He recently negotiated the first-phase acquisition, a 30-acre tract.

"Historically, I've represented more sellers than buyers," he says. "Now it's leaning more toward buyers. I've also developed a practice representing lenders for almost the first time. I'm representing as many borrowers on deals as the lenders.

"I love this new wave I'm in, because I'm representing new entities in acquisitions," he adds. "I'm forming the entity, negotiating the deal, ensuring the entitlements, doing due diligence and then I'm also representing them in negotiating the loan documents. So one project like that can result in a tremendous amount of work."

Landmark work

Since admitted to practice law in 1984, Bedke estimates he has handled about a half-billion dollars in deals. That's truly a conservative figure, he says, adding he has never thought about career totals until asked.

One of his biggest deals took place in the late '90s on property belonging to the Dante B. Fascell Port of Miami-Dade. Bedke led the Piper Rudnick team that represented a multigovernmental task force in the pre-financing phase of the AmericanAirlines Arena, a 19,600-seat sports-and-entertainment venue publicly financed for about $241 million.

Negotiations pitted the owner of the Miami Heat professional basketball team - cruise line magnate Micky Arison - against city, county and port authority interests.

"It was a fun deal," Bedke recalls. "At one point I had been up 50 hours straight in a war-room-like conference room, drinking cafe con leche.

"I came out of the meeting with an armful of litigation documents and slipped on a patch of ice," he says. "I shattered my elbow, had emergency surgery and a pin inserted on Friday. I was in my office by Monday, wearing a Hawaiian shirt (because of the surgery), and closed a deal on First Florida Towers, now known as Park Towers (in Tampa)."

Although the dollar figures are not as high, Bedke also participated in other high profile deals such as the development of the Florida Aquarium and expansion of the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa and even the ground-lease negotiations for the Hard Rock Cafe in Key West - one of his favorite deals.

During negotiations in Key West, Bedke and his wife - Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachelle DesVaux Bedke and a former chair of the ABA young lawyers group - became friends with local Conch and attorney Michael Halpern, former owner of the Sloppy Joe's restaurant.

"It had a lot of quirky issues and characters involved," Bedke says. "It was a fun deal. People were very colorful. The man who owns the dirt (Halpern) insisted my wife and I stay at his house."

Fundamental values

To really understand Bedke, it's important to look at the influences on his life.

He was born in Lubbock, Texas, into a military family - the son of retired U.S. Air Force Major Gen. Ernest Bedke and his wife, Marilyn. Just as most armed services families, the Bedkes adjusted their lives to military needs. The family made Tampa its home in the mid-'70s when the father transferred to MacDill Air Force Base and eventually assumed command of the 56th Tactical Fighter Wing.

Such influence accounts for the early achievements of Bedke and his brother - Air Force Brigadier Gen. Curt Bedke. Each earned the Boy Scouts of America's highest honor, the Eagle Scout award. Unlike his brother, however, Bedke decided against a military career. Although he didn't follow in his father's footsteps, he speaks proudly about his brother's accomplishments. Curt Bedke is about to attain the same military rank as their father.

Michael Bedke became student president at the University of Florida. He earned a law degree in 1984 from the university. Right after graduation he joined Tampa's Trenam Simmons Kemker Scharf Barkin Frye & O'Neill PA. He attributes much of his success as a young associate to mentor, Sherwin P. Simmons, now the chairman of the tax practice group at Miami's Steel Hector & Davis LLP.

About six years later, Bedke became a founding partner at Kalish & Ward PA. In 1995, he joined Rudnick & Wolfe, which since merged to become Washington, D.C.-based Piper Rudnick.

Creating a model

Bedke's experience in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew was humbling. Busy emergency aid workers offered Clendinen and him little support. They recommended the two head farther south to ground zero, a Homestead-area disaster relief center.

"What normally is a 30-minute drive took two to three hours," Bedke says. "When we arrived [relief workers] gave us two metal folding chairs and said, 'Go set up shop.' Literally, we sat on these little metal chairs holding a sign that read, 'Free Legal Work.' "

Within a week, enough South Florida lawyers had joined the ABA effort to relieve Bedke and Clendinen. But Bedke's relief work didn't stop there. About three weeks later, Hurricane Iniki struck the Hawaiian Islands, and Bedke spearheaded a similar pro bono effort there.

But Bedke's experience in South Florida and the Pacific Rim revealed a serious problem. Many lawyers hesitated to volunteer their services for fear their altruism would later become fodder for legal malpractice allegations.

To ensure that didn't happen in Florida, Bedke lobbied during the 1993 state legislative session for a Good Samaritan law that now covers any of the state's lawyers who offer free legal aid in times of crisis. He attributes the law's enactment to the advocacy of Congressman Jim Davis, a Tampa lawyer who then served as a state representative.

In 1995, Bedke received a call from James Lee Whitt, then FEMA's director. Whitt asked Bedke to help Oklahoma City attorneys organize a legal aid relief effort in the wake of the terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. "The response of the Oklahoma lawyers was nothing short of outstanding," Bedke adds.

The cumulative effect of Bedke's work on behalf of the ABA's young lawyers built the foundation for a disaster relief program that continues through this day. "The same model was put in place during 9/11," Bedke says. "It's become so institutionalized we're no longer experiencing the growing pains."

Although Bedke is no longer affiliated with the young lawyers group, he remains only a phone call away for those who follow in his footsteps. Phoenix attorney Susan Wissink is thankful for that. She was the young lawyers' chair during 9/11.

"He was one of the first people who contacted me after 9/11," she says. "I was brand new, in office only a month. He got Piper Rudnick to be one of the law firms to host volunteer attorneys. He immediately jumped into action. He's great."

Domestic violence

Almost since the day he started his practice, Bedke has offered pro bono services though Bay Area Legal Services Inc., which provides legal aid to poor clients in Hillsborough and Pasco counties. He was the group's volunteer president in 1997 and again in 2002.

During this time Bedke took an interest in domestic violence issues - a frequent underlying problem for many of the people who use the agency's legal aid services, says Richard Woltmann, the agency's executive director. This problem is one of the reasons the agency has established strong links with the Spring of Tampa Bay Inc. - a local sanctuary for abused women and their children.

While serving as president, Bedke and Woltmann sought solutions to underlying domestic violence problems. They still get together occasionally for a morning cafe con leche.

"We would meet regularly to discuss what we could do to more creatively help our clients change their lives for the better," Woltmann says. "One of the things that we talked about was working together more closely with other agencies that serve victims of domestic violence so that we could all work together with the client to really help the client make change. From that, a number of projects emerged."

The effort produced a one-stop advocacy shop for domestic violence victims. It includes the participation of 25 Tampa-area community service and law enforcement organizations. "Such a collaborative effort and coordinated community response is without precedent in the Tampa Bay area," Sue Spitz, the Spring of Tampa Bay's executive director, recently wrote in a letter lauding Bedke's volunteer work.

On another occasion, Bedke engineered a fundraising campaign that produced $50,000 in contributions for the shelter. A dedicated triathlon athlete, he ran a 150-mile foot race across Africa's Sahara Desert. Sponsors pledged money in support of that athletic feat.

At the national level, the first female ABA president - Roberta Cooper Ramo - appointed Bedke in the mid-1990s to a task force on domestic violence. The task force evolved into the ABA's Commission on Domestic Violence, and Bedke would serve a term as chairman.

In 2002, his advocacy earned him an appointment on the U.S. attorney general's National Advisory Committee on Violence Against Women.

"Initially, there were a few people who would look and say what is this white southern, presumably quasi-conservative male, doing being involved with this issue," Bedke recalls. "Some had thought: 'There must be a situation involving domestic violence in his life.' That was not the case. I ended up advocating and bringing other people in the fold - especially males I thought who could be influential.

"Once you stop thinking of the victims as statistics and start thinking about them in terms - heaven forbid - this could be my mother, my grandmother, my sister, my daughter or even a co-worker, when you put a face on it, then the gut reaction of people is to help because this is just wrong," he adds.

That's the essence of a man recently designated as the 2004 Florida Victim Advocate of the Year, an award sponsored by the Florida attorney general. He will receive it at an April 22 ceremony in Tallahassee.

"He's probably one of the top domestic violence advocates in the country," Clendinen says. "He does it with so much humility. Mike's been a great friend for so many the years. We're so proud of him, and I'm proud to call him my friend."

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