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Knight In Shining Armor


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  • | 6:00 p.m. February 6, 2004
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Knight In Shining Armor

Richard A. Harrison has faced harassment and threats of being sued as a governmental attorney on controversial issues in the Tampa Bay area.

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

It's an unusual time for Richard A. Harrison. The 20-hour workdays come infrequently. Anonymous telephone calls with subtle threats ceased long ago. The Tampa governmental law attorney mostly practices these days in the privacy of the mediator's office. Only a few people know he recently saved Tampa Bay area taxpayers almost $2 million in mediated settlements. He says it just may be the calm before the storm.

Over about 14 years as a governmental law attorney, the Allen Dell PA shareholder has stood center stage under the harshest of public spotlights.

As general counsel, Harrison advised on the controversial privatization of Tampa General Hospital. As a special counsel, he successfully defended Tampa Bay Water against legal challenges to the regional water utility's well-field pumping permits in eastern Hillsborough County. He drafted the construction procurement guidelines for the regional water utility's desalination plant and then successfully defended against a legal challenge from the low bidder.

The work of a special governmental counsel runs hot and cold, says Harrison, 43. He compares the work to a calling, serving always at the beck and call of a government agency. In saying that, he points at a small statute on his desk - a medieval knight clasping sword and shield.

"If I was prone to romanticism, what we do as lawyers today for the government is the modern-day equivalent to the knight in shining armor," he says. "We wield the sword of the sovereign. People usually chuckle at that. The problems government faces today are the same as business, but government is different. The sovereign immunity the government still enjoys this day is a vestige of the old common law doctrine that the king can do no wrong."

Protecting the king

Unfortunately for the king, Harrison says, his subjects too often view him as the source of a blank check. He says that's the typical reaction these days among property owners to local government eminent domain actions.

As a special counsel to Tampa Bay Water, for instance, he spent the past year or so litigating eminent domain claims on a water pipeline route that covers 14 miles in eastern Hillsborough between the water utility's desalination plant and its water treatment plant.

For the most part, water utility engineers collocated the pipeline through easements along Tampa Electric Co. right of way. To complete the project, however, the utility had to condemn a 250-foot-wide path across 21 private properties.

The property owners asserted claims in excess of $3.2 million, Harrison says, while the water utility's appraisals assessed the properties' fair market value - exclusive of any business losses - at only $258,225.

In the instance of one dairy farm, Harrison says, the water utility offered about $20,000 in exchange for the rights to bury the pipeline under a muck pond. One of the dairy's owners responded with a counteroffer of $60,000.

"I gave him the same answer I give everyone," Harrison says. "I asked him if there is some reason why he thinks the property is worth more. He said, 'I don't know what it's worth. I just have a big family, and we want more money.' Needless to say we didn't pay $60,000."

The dairy owners retained legal counsel and ordered an appraisal, which estimated the pipeline would cause about $475,000 in business damages, Harrison says. The fight wasn't worth the effort, so the water utility's engineers altered the pipeline route to traverse a smaller portion of the dairy property. The dairy owners ultimately accepted a $27,000 settlement.

In total, Harrison negotiated a final payout of slightly more than $1.9 million. Six of the 21 properties accounted for about 95% of the total payout because of what Harrison acknowledged as true and proven business losses.

Best interests

But that's the type of work Tampa Bay Water has come to expect from Harrison, says Don Conn, the regional water utility's in-house general counsel. On behalf of Allen Dell, Harrison first submitted a bid as a special counsel in 1995.

"He has just done a great job on all the assignments that we have asked him to undertake," Conn says. "He works hard; he works weekends. He's always looking for a settlement of disputes that come his way, which really is in the best interests of both parties - Tampa Bay Water and other parties. He's also creative in suggesting solutions."

Tampa eminent domain attorney Will Smith agrees with Conn's assessment. Besides his law practice, Smith also serves throughout the state as a mediator. Although he cannot talk about mediated cases, Smith has witnessed up close Harrison's litigation style.

"One of the things I personally respect about the way Richard litigates is his ability to maintain not only a professional approach to the case but at the same time not take himself too seriously," Smith says. "Many attorneys have quite a bit of their ego tied up in the outcome of a case. And as a mediator whose job it is to attempt to facilitate and negotiate a resolution in cases, it's important to me to have attorneys who know how to negotiate a case. And Richard is one of those individuals. He doesn't let ego get in the way of a settlement."

Such detachment serves his clients well, Smith adds. "I think clients gravitate toward Richard as counsel because he remains very calm even in very high profile and extremely intense litigation," he says. "It also is a very valuable tool in negotiations to have a good sense of humor, and Richard has that ability to inject his dry and often very humorous observations into negotiations."

Learning from the best

Government law as a specialty wasn't on Harrison's priority list when he graduated in 1986 from the Stetson University College of Law. He pursued a general real estate and business law practice for about 3 1/2 years at a small Tampa law firm.

While representing a client, Harrison met Allen Dell shareholder Michael N. Brown. "We spoke casually, and I never thought anything about it," Harrison says. "I wasn't really out seeking employment at the time."

Then in early 1990 Brown called Harrison about a job. He asked Harrison to join a team of Allen Dell attorneys representing the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority in a multimillion-dollar claim against a general contractor. It seemed large panes of glass would shatter spontaneously and without explanation following construction of Airside F at Tampa International Airport.

Following months of research, the Allen Dell team discovered a reason for the spontaneous breakage, a manufacturing flaw. The team prevailed on behalf of the aviation authority.

Harrison's work at Allen Dell put him almost in daily contact with two of the area's most experienced governmental law attorneys - Ralph Dell, the decades-long general counsel for Hillsborough County Hospital Authority and Tampa General Hospital; and Stewart Eggert, for years the county aviation authority's general counsel.

It was Dell who taught Harrison an important lesson - that juries understand simple concepts better than complex legal issues. "Ralph will never claim to have mentored anyone, but he does it by example," Harrison says. "The old timers in town will tell you he was one of the top two or three trial lawyers in town."

The association with his more experienced colleagues encouraged Harrison to focus on governmental law as a specialty. He even earned a certification in city, county and government law from the Florida Bar. Of about 70,000 lawyers in Florida, he is one of only 146 with such a certification.

Harrison now shares his experiences at the Stetson law school, where he teaches water law. That's a course Conn used to teach.

"Richard has picked up the course and improved on it," Conn says. "The first year I taught the course, only nine students signed up for the course. The second year there was 19 signed up for it. Now Richard is in his second year teaching the course, and he has 40 students signed up for it. He must be doing a pretty good job."

One tough job

It was partly because of Dell that Harrison tackled what he considers one of his toughest yet most rewarding jobs. In late 1995, Dell developed a health condition. It prevented him from representing the county hospital authority during the highly publicized search for a new chief executive officer.

During an Allen Dell shareholders meeting, Harrison recalls, one of the firm's other attorneys temporarily volunteered to replace Dell as the hospital authority's general counsel.

Meanwhile, a local newspaper sought access to information about the search for a new CEO for Tampa General Hospital. The hospital authority refused on the advice of Dell's replacement, and the newspaper sued. It soon became apparent the newspaper was right. The law firm then made a tough decision and picked Harrison to deliver the news.

"During this period of great turmoil, I was to go over to the hospital authority meeting and have to tell in a public setting we screwed up and gave them bad advice, that we would have to scrap everything on the CEO search and start over," he recalls. "That's not my favorite way to begin a relationship."

Tampa City Attorney Fred Karl, a former Florida Supreme Court justice, recalls the reaction from the hospital authority's board members, when Harrison told them the law firm would absorb the legal costs over the public records/public meetings battle with the newspaper.

"I think it was admiration," says Karl, who later served an interim role as the hospital authority's CEO. "I believe (the law firm) felt it was the ethical thing to do, and it was very generous."

The public acknowledgement won Harrison and Allen Dell more than just the board's respect. Despite the faux pas, the board hired him as general counsel. "He's a very intelligent lawyer, very conscientious," Karl says. "That's an incident that illustrates his willing to go the extra mile, to do the correct thing."

Not long after his appointment Harrison started to realize the magnitude of his new job. The hospital authority's CEO search committee decided on one fact. Tampa General Hospital, foundering in a sea of red ink, needed the best possible chief executive. It also would cost maybe three times more than what the hospital had paid its last CEO. Public interest, and dissension among the hospital authority's board members, only intensified.

"It's like walking through coals," Harrison recalls about the very public contract negotiations with the Dr. Bruce Siegel, the search committee's pick. "It was unbelievable."

The turmoil escalated as Harrison worked with Siegel on a plan to remove the hospital's 3,000 workers from the state-funded retirement system and save the hospital millions of dollars in costs. Some of the board members strenuously objected to the plan, however. They considered the move as nothing more than a veiled attempt to make the hospital private.

"The employees ended up with a better retirement package that included other benefits, and the hospital ended up saving $8 (million) to $10 million," he says.

Any turmoil paled in comparison to the debate that erupted during Harrison's next major project for the hospital authority. Siegel and the late H.L. Culbreath, the hospital authority's chairman and former TECO Energy chairman, persuaded the board to embark on a strategic plan. They reasoned that Tampa General Hospital could became more profitable as a nonprofit hospital than a government-owned hospital.

"Everybody knew what the reaction would be," Harrison says. "But I was surprised at how strong, almost how violent, the opposition was. It was almost irrational."

Then came the anonymous telephone calls. One caller advised Harrison to be careful. The caller told him careers had been ruined in an earlier attempt to make the hospital private. "It was like cloak and dagger stuff," Harrison recalls. "I knew (the caller) wasn't a nut ball. It had to have been someone involved in the process."

The hospital's transformation occurred quickly over a four- to five-month period, with only two members of the 15-member board dissenting. To avoid any appearance of conflict, Harrison decided not to pursue a bid as general counsel of a newly formed nonprofit board, Florida Health Sciences Center Inc. "I represented myself right out of a job," he says.

However, the dissent didn't dissipate. One of the hospital authority's board members filed a grievance against Harrison with the Florida Bar over his work on the privatization effort. It was dismissed as baseless. Then some of the members of the county hospital authority discussed the possibility of suing Harrison for malpractice.

"My initial reaction was I couldn't fathom how it could be malpractice when I had accomplished exactly what they had voted for and told me to do," he says.

That effort, too, dissipated under public scorn, including a newspaper editorial that chastised those members who publicly considered such an action.

Although he didn't fully agree with the hospital's transformation, Karl says it was apparent the majority of the board members appreciated Harrison's work. "Everybody was immensely satisfied with his work, guiding and advising the board," he says. "He's a very fine advocate. I worked with him only a few months but was impressed with the quickness of his learning and thoroughness about which he did his job."

Richard A. Harrison

Age: 43

Residence: Carrollwood

Hometown: Born in New York City but relocated with family at age 8 to Tampa.

Personal: Divorced but engaged to Koni Cassini, director of finance and administration, Tampa Bay Water. He has two daughters, Katherine, 11, and Lauren, 6.

Education: AA, Miami-Dade Community College, 1980; BA in English Literature, Stetson University; JD, Stetson College of Law, 1986.

Favorite place to go to escape the office? Raymond James Stadium

Favorite place in the Tampa Bay area? The Dali Museum

Favorite place to dine? Laughing Cat, an Italian restaurant in Carrollwood

What do you do for fun? "I don't have fun."

What book did you last read for relaxation? "Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded," by Simon Winchester.

 

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