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Zealous Defender (Tampa edition)

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  • | 6:00 p.m. February 27, 2004
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Zealous Defender (Tampa edition)

David Weinstein has established a power environmental law practice, representing companies like Coronet Industries, Mulberry Phosphates and Exxon Mobil.

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

Pictures of David Weinstein's 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Sarah, adorn his office. She appears in photographs with Jill, his wife of 10 years. Screen savers on two computer screens project images of the child. Colleagues affectionately call his office the "Sarah shrine."

Less noticeable on a bookshelf is the plaque students from his martial arts club gave to Weinstein, 45, for his devotion to them. One protege and his family, for instance, thought so much of Weinstein they recently sought his advice on whether the 18-year-old should attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point or the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. The protege, Tampa Berkeley Prep senior Shane Serafin, now holds an appointment to the Naval Academy.

Nearby is a framed letter dated Nov. 12, 1999, from Howard Parker as an assistant U.S. attorney. Parker prosecuted one of Weinstein's clients, an environmental manager, on federal criminal charges over a $50 million chemical spill in Louisiana. Not only did Weinstein successfully defend the client but the prosecutor wrote: "You have been a credit to your client and your profession."

Those mementos offer a brief glimpse into the life of an environmental attorney known for his high-profile defense work. Since focusing in that area of law in the early '90s, Weinstein has become somewhat of a beacon for those caught in the mire of federal, state and local environmental regulations.

For instance, Weinstein defended Mulberry Phosphates Inc. in a class action complaint over the 1997 spill of about 50 million gallons of acidic water into the Alafia River. Although the lawsuit was highly publicized, Weinstein quietly negotiated a confidential settlement last fall.

Then there's the intense scrutiny of Coronet Industries Inc., which has thrust him as its counsel into a glaring public eye. The phosphate producer is about to close its Plant City facility amid allegations it caused neighboring residents environmental health problems.

But the demand for his defense work extends farther than the confines of environmental law. Weinstein also is one of the lawyers 13th Circuit Judge Gregory Holder retained to defend him against allegations he violated judicial ethics.

Those who know him say Weinstein has earned their respect through honest, hard work. Even his opponents grudgingly give him his due.

"I don't have complaints about his negotiating style," says Alan Wagner, managing partner of Tampa's Wagner Vaughn & McLaughlin PA. Wagner represented the residents and businesses that sued Mulberry Phosphates. "He was a good negotiator."

Coronet Industries

From his vantage point, Weinstein says Coronet Industries' investors have made some very good decisions in a bad situation. He says the company's investors exhibited that, first, by hiring David Denner as its new chief executive officer and, second, by delegating to him the duty to oversee the phosphate plant's orderly shutdown and decommissioning.

Weinstein is convinced the company intends to do the right thing. Besides working with regulators over the plant's shutdown, he says, the company has expressed a commitment to assess and rehabilitate the problems at the nearly 1,000-acre site.

"Denner is committed to doing the right thing for the environment and the community," he says. "The Coronet team, headed by David Denner, is currently negotiating with the government agencies to properly address the outstanding environmental issues at the site."

Hesitant to talk about details of the contamination, Weinstein says he has seen some unusual circumstances emerge out of the Coronet publicity.

For instance, a reporter for The Tampa Tribune who covered the story quit suddenly to work for a plaintiff's attorney - California's Masry & Vititoe of Erin Brockovich fame. The firm represents a number of Plant City residents in a pending class action against Coronet.

Then the Tribune acknowledged publicly its now-former managing editor is married to a former Coronet executive.

Weinstein won't speculate on what those circumstances mean, if anything. Instead, he talked about the basic steps he takes in defense of clients.

While focusing on potential witnesses and essential documents, he says it's important to him to learn as much as possible about the science involved in environmental contamination.

"When you defend an environmental case, among the first tasks is to understand the science as well as the law and the facts to ensure your client is not held responsible for conditions they did not cause," he says. "In those situations where a client does have responsibility for all or some of the environmental problems, it's the defense lawyer's job to ensure the client does not pay more than its fair share.

"And very, very important to my colleagues and I is that the environmental issues be appropriately assessed and appropriately resolved," he adds. "We've been involved in the clean up of many, many pieces of contaminated property. We take great pride in making sure it's done right."

Judge Holder

Opposing counsel Terri Donaldson, general counsel for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, acknowledges a respect for the manner in which Weinstein practices law. Besides litigating against him as a general counsel, Donaldson as a former assistant U.S. attorney also opposed Weinstein on environmental enforcement issues.

"He's a very fine lawyer, a very ethical lawyer," she says. "I would be very hard pressed to say anything negative about David. I also would describe David as extremely well prepared. He represents his clients zealously but with a great deal of diplomacy."

Zealous is the word to describe Weinstein's defense of Holder. The two have known each other since they worked at the now dissolved Tampa law firm of Taub & Williams PA.

In 2002, someone slipped an envelope under the door of a Tampa federal prosecutor. The envelope contained two essays. One is a copy of an essay Holder purportedly wrote as a prerequisite for a promotion to colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserves. A note in the envelope alleged Holder plagiarized from the other essay in the envelope.

The Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, which investigates judicial ethical violations as an arm of the Florida Supreme Court, brought charges against Holder. Those charges could result in his disqualification as a judge.

Holder cannot produce a copy of the original essay he wrote. But neither can the Air Force. Consequently, he alleges someone submitted an altered copy of the essay in the envelope.

"Judge Holder is being put in the position, by the prosecutor in this case, of having to prove a negative," Weinstein says. "This has been extremely difficult for the judge and his family."

It's also proved frustrating to Weinstein.

"The case has been challenging and, certainly at points, frustrating for my co-counsel, Greg Kehoe, and myself," he says. "For example, what we call the purported Holder paper was allegedly and anonymously slipped under the door of a military reserve officer, who also happens to be a federal prosecutor. No one has been able to identify the person who did so. Nor have we been provided with the envelope in which the paper was supposedly contained. Or the note that supposedly accompanied it.

"Neither the Air Force nor the JQC has been able to produce the original or the copy of the paper Judge Holder actually submitted to the Air Force," he adds. "A copy no longer exists in the courthouse computer system, because the backup tapes have been destroyed in the normal, ordinary process of courthouse records retention."

Still, Weinstein remains confident about Holder's defense.

"However, the burden of proof in this case rests not with Judge Holder but with the JQC prosecutor," he says. "The prosecutor is required to prove his case to a very high standard known as the clear and convincing evidence standard. And on the facts of this case, he simply cannot do so."

Exxon Mobil

Co-counsel Kehoe offered a couple of reasons why Weinstein has attained the level of success that he has.

"David has two things that are just without comparison," says Kehoe of Tampa's James Hoyer Newcomer & Smiljanich PA. "No. 1, when he goes into cases he has a complete knowledge of the facts of what has transpired. And, second, he is able to convey his client's position with credibility and dignity. That's important. While the message may be important, it's more important that the listener trust the messenger."

They have known each other since Kehoe was an assistant U.S. attorney. "We were for years generally on the opposite side of things," he says. "Now that I'm in private practice, and he is in private practice, we work together routinely. He's a great lawyer. Let there be no mistake about it."

His skills were evident in the defense of Exxon Mobil Corp. in Florida a couple of years ago against a product liability class action complaint over the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE).

The federal courts consolidated the Florida lawsuit with 22 other MTBE lawsuits in the Southern District of New York.

"We worked with some excellent lawyers in a very large collaborative defense effort," he says. "It resulted in the class action being dismissed. That case for me was probably the best example of what could be accomplished when individuals put aside personal preferences and styles to work collaboratively toward a common goal."

Accumulated knowledge

Weinstein attributes his own success to the accumulation of knowledge he first acquired as a young attorney in the early 1990s from Tampa attorney Ted Taub. He says Taub, a pre-eminent real estate attorney, naturally evolved into the practice of environment law. He continued to focus on environmental matters when he joined a group of Taub & Williams partners in 1991 to form Williams Reed Weinstein Schifino & Mangione.

Eight years later, he joined with Tampa personal injury attorney John Bales to form Bales & Weinstein PA. In 2001, they acquired a 17,227-square-foot building for $1.1 million. They spent a handsome figure to renovate the building as the site of their new law offices.

At Bales & Weinstein, he works closely on environmental issues with Dan Fernandez, a former general counsel for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The two opposed each other early in Weinstein's career on what was then one of the largest enforcement actions ever brought by the regional water regulator.

Typical of his style, Weinstein says he negotiated a successful resolution for a client accused of improperly filling in wetlands. The agency sought a $6.6 million fine.

"It was successfully resolved through a negotiated settlement," he says. "At the time the general counsel was Dan Fernandez, who is now in an office across the hall. Now 15 years later, we work very closely on environmental matters."

Notwithstanding the satisfaction he receives from his work, Weinstein also takes pride in teaching people the martial arts. A high school wrestling champion, he says he naturally found his way to the martial arts because of the philosophical values inherent in the discipline.

Although he competed over the years as a fourth-degree black belt, Weinstein now focuses primarily on teaching through the nonprofit Tampa Moo Duk Kwan Club. The club is open to anyone with the desire to learn.

That's where he met Shane Serafin. Schoolmate David Grilli, son of federal court mediator Peter Grilli, introduced him to Weinstein, says Shane's father Glenn Serafin. It was Weinstein who encouraged Shane's interest in high school wrestling.

"The discipline that is required in each of those activities is something that my son appreciates," says the father, a Tampa-based media broker. "It's a learned experience."

It was the son's respect for Weinstein that encouraged the family to seek out his advice when the military schools presented Shane with career opportunities.

"David's been a very influential and good role model for Shane," says the father. "We do appreciate him, too. He's been very supportive. When we needed advice about Shane's future, we've always felt free to call on him."

David Weinstein

Age: 45.

Title: Partner, Bales & Weinstein PA.

Hometown: Born in Vallejo, Calif., raised in the greater Philadelphia area and resides in South Tampa.

Personal: Married to Jill, 10 years. They have one child, Sarah, 3 1/2.

Education: A high-school wrestling champion, he earned a BS/BA, 1981, and JD, 1986, from the University of Florida. He is a member of the school's Blue Key Club.

Career: Following law school, he joined the Florida branch office of a Philadelphia-based multistate law firm. He then worked at Taub & Williams until 1991. Then he joined a group of partners to form Williams, Reed, Weinstein, Schifino & Mangione. In 1999, he partnered with John Bales.

Legal hero: Watergate lawyer Tom Green of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood in Washington, D.C. He served as co-counsel with Green on a case once.

Avocation: A fourth-degree black belt, Weinstein teaches martial arts through a nonprofit club, the Tampa Moo Duk Kwan Club.

Last book read for relaxation: "Not Fade Away: A Short Life Well Lived," by Laurence Shames.

Favorite place to dine: Home with family, especially Thai food fixed by Sarah's nanny.

Just for fun: He and his wife enjoy bicycling; Sarah rides with her father. The family also enjoys boating, with David and Jill certified as scuba divers. When time permits, he also enjoys riding a Harley-Davidson Super Glide Sport.


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