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Coffee Talk (Tampa edition)

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  • | 6:00 p.m. January 23, 2004
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Coffee Talk (Tampa edition)

Fee advice

The responsibility for funding state courts gets passed from county government to Tallahassee this year. Florida voters decreed the change six years ago by passing a constitutional amendment.

Court officials are understandably worried that they will be funded just like Florida legislators seem to fund everything else - inadequately.

But auditors in Pinellas County have come up with a way that the courts in Clearwater and St. Petersburg could be a little flusher in 2004 and beyond: Charge user fees that are closer to the maximums allowed by state law.

Auditors for Circuit Court Clerk Karleen F. De Blaker estimate the county lost a chance at $17 million during a recent 18-month period by charging fees that were too low. Of that amount, $6.3 million represented the cost of taxpayer-funded legal counsel that criminal defendants weren't ordered to repay, if they happened to become financially able to do so at a later date.

The duty of assessing fines and costs belongs to the sentencing judge. The auditors concluded that some judges are falling down on that job. The auditors chose 76 cases where a public defender or other tax-supported defense attorney was assigned to represent an indigent and the defendant pleaded guilty, no-contest, or was found guilty. In 88% of those cases, the sentencing judge neglected to assess any attorney fees or costs at all.

When the fees were assessed in Pinellas courts, they were the lowest among six Florida counties surveyed by the auditors. The highest assessment for a public defender in Pinellas was $150. By comparison, Sarasota County charged $250, Pasco $800, and Hillsborough $1,750.

Among the cases reviewed, the auditors reported the most common total assessment was $225 upon misdemeanants and $450 upon felons. After court costs were satisfied, that left an average fine of just $49 in the misdemeanor cases and, paradoxically, an even lower figure in the felony cases, $22.

The maximum fines under Florida law range from $5,000 to $15,000 for felonies and $500 to $1,000 for misdemeanors.

If judges had levied just one-half of the maximum fine for the lowest degree of the offense, the auditors estimate the county might have expected an additional $78 million during the audit period of Oct. 1, 2001, to March 31 of last year.

The auditors disclaimed any intent to encourage bounty hunting at the courthouse. "While we are not suggesting fines be increased to generate more revenue, state law establishes maximum fine amounts to indicate the seriousness of the offense," they wrote. "We question whether fine amounts of an average of $22 are reasonable when state law establishes the maximum fines at $5,000 to $15,000."

Investors wanted

Veteran banker Hank Goldsby has put an offering circular on the street for what could be Sarasota's newest bank.

Goldsby would be president of still-in-organization First America Bank, which filed for a state charter in October. He has 30 years of banking experience, including stints in Southwest Florida at Liberty National and Regions banks. The First America Bank organizers are offering at least 750,000 shares of common stock at a subscription price of $10 a piece. The minimum subscription is 1,000 shares for each investor. The offering expires March 15.

The bank organizers are seeking regulatory approval to open two full-service locations, one in Manatee County and another in Sarasota County, by the end of June.

The proposed bank isn't using securities underwriters to sell the issue in order to conserve capital. "We want to deal directly with our future stockholders in the hope they will be our first depositors," Goldsby says in a news release.

The proposed bank's 14-member board of directors includes:

×Sarasota hotelier Ronald G. Allen;

×Real estate attorney Paul D. Beitlich, a senior shareholder at Sarasota's Icard, Merrill, Cullis, Timm, Furen & Ginsburg PA;

×Gulf Coast builder Gary A. Roberts;

×Robert C. Smith, a former U.S. senator from New Hampshire who recently moved to Sarasota;

×Bradenton dentist Robert J. Klement;

×Sarasota obstetrician-gynecologist Vincent G. Stenger; and

×Local independent insurance agent Edward J. Valek II.

Carol B. Green, an expert on franchising who serves on the board of the Sarasota Opera, would chair First America Bank.

Right on schedule

Holland & Knight LLP gave about 36% of the dollars it earmarked last year for state and local political campaign contributions to its Florida political action committee. (See related story on federal campaign contributions Page 4.)

The Tampa-based law firm contributed about $250,000 last year to the PACs it operates in eight states, says Steven Elrod, executive partner of the law firm's Chicago office.

"There are right now eight individual state PACs that have been created for the purpose of providing campaign contributions at the state and local government levels in the states in which our firm has offices," says Elrod, who chairs the committee that oversees the allocations. "These eight PACs are funded directly from the law firm. Holland & Knight then makes a contribution out of its revenue to the individual state PACs."

Florida campaign finance records show the firm - the largest in Florida and one of the largest in the nation - contributed $90,000 last year to the Florida PAC. During the 2001-02 election cycle, the law firm allocated $212,000 to the Florida PAC.

Close call

Bookkeepers at Raymond James Financial Inc. can breathe a sigh of relief thanks to Tampa securities attorney George Guerra. He recently saved the St. Petersburg firm $11.3 million in compensatory and punitive damages over a securities dispute.

While still employed in the Tampa office of GrayRobinson, Guerra defended the subsidiaries Raymond James & Associates Inc., Raymond James Financial Services Inc. and broker Sofia Khan McGuire against a complaint filed by the National Black Nurses Association with the National Association of Securities Dealers. The nursing group alleged the respondents mismanaged its securities account.

Last month, an NASD arbitration panel rejected the nursing group's claims and ordered it to pay $12,000 in NASD fees. The respondents had to pay their own NASD fees of $10,000. And each side paid their own attorneys' fees.


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