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Repeat Performance


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  • | 6:00 p.m. September 10, 2004
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Repeat Performance

Steven G. Burton's work four years ago for President George W. Bush has earned him another job during the 2004 general election.

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

Four years ago this November, Steven G. Burton produced something quite valuable for President George W. Bush. During the 2000 general election, the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign hired the lawyer to monitor election results in Hillsborough County.

In the days after the 2000 general election, only hundreds of votes in Florida separated Bush and his opponent, Democratic nominee Al Gore. No clear victor had emerged. Each candidate engaged in all-out political war as Democratic and Republican advocates such as Burton went to work in each of Florida's 67 counties.

Because of suspected inconsistencies, Burton sued Hillsborough's election canvassing board on Bush's behalf over the count of overseas absentee ballots - votes that typically favor Republican candidates. He argued Hillsborough elections officials wrongfully rejected dozens of valid ballots. The advocacy thrust Burton under harsh klieg lights as local and national TV news coverage recorded every movement of the controversy.

In the end, Hillsborough elections officials acceded. Largely at Burton's urging, the elections officials accepted more than 50 of the originally rejected overseas absentee ballots. It was not a meaningless exercise. Bush won Florida by only 537 votes as history shows.

Not one to forget a favor, the president recently rewarded Burton with a repeat performance. On Nov. 2 Burton will serve the Bush-Cheney campaign as regional counsel. He will supervise the ballot count not only in Hillsborough but also in two other, as yet, unidentified counties. It's a job Burton proudly accepts.

"I believe he is right for the country, and to have played just an extremely tiny role in helping him is a thrill," says Burton, 43, managing partner of Broad & Cassel's Tampa office.

About a year ago Bush acknowledged Burton's role with a token of appreciation. The president posed for a photo with Burton and Susan, his wife of 20 years, during a campaign fundraiser at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay. The opportunity to pose with the most powerful leader in the free world thrilled the couple. They basked in the moment as they rejoined the crowd. But Burton wanted something else from the president.

Years ago, Burton's work for Congress and the Florida Legislature on Y2K issues, and the potential impact on commerce, earned him introductions to Gov. Jeb Bush. The two's acquaintanceship grew even stronger over the years as state House speakers Tom Feeney and Johnnie Byrd retained Burton to represent them on House legal matters.

Following the presidential photo opportunity, Burton asked the governor a question: Would his brother mind autographing a copy of the complaint he filed four years ago against the Hillsborough canvassing board? The governor saw no problem with the request and escorted him through the layers of security that protected the president.

"I brought it up to (the president) and introduced myself - obviously, he doesn't know all his lawyers - and he put his arm around me and thanked me," Burton says. "He thanked me a couple of times, and pulled a pen out and wrote that on the complaint. He was very warm and appreciative. It was a big moment."

Modest beginnings

It's an exemplary path Burton blazed from modest beginnings to rubbing shoulders with the president of the United States.

The life-long Tampa resident excelled academically as a youth. As a high school runner, he earned a state ranking.

But law as a career was an afterthought. At the University of South Florida, he studied advertising, public relations and journalism. Following graduation in 1984, he met a key career influence, Jim Metcalf of Metcalf & Associates. The experience taught Burton about strategic thinking and how to interact with corporate leaders. Then his reasoning changed; he wanted to be a lawyer.

The switch to law took a bit of strategic thinking, too. He attended night school classes to pass the LSAT. To earn money, he did some advertising/marketing work during his first year at the Stetson University College of Law. He clerked at Sarasota's Williams Parker Harrison Dietz & Getzen PA. The couple survived on the wife's salary as a schoolteacher.

"We met at (age) 21, starved together and have had fun together," he says.

Then in 1988, with law degree in hand, Burton met another major influence on his life - H. Lee Moffitt, the former House speaker.

"The ballgame was over when I met Lee Moffitt," says Burton, who took a job as an associate at Moffitt Hart & Heron PA.

"I hold him in esteem," Burton adds. "What I like about him, which I've been sure to model after him, he talks to everyone the same."

So how well does Burton apply the lessons he learned from Moffitt? Just ask Foley & Lardner PA attorney Christopher Lee Griffin. He represented the Gore-Lieberman ticket in opposition to the lawsuit Burton filed on the president's behalf against the Hillsborough canvassing board.

Prior to the recount, Griffin had never met Burton. The one thing Griffin says he likes most about his profession are those lawyers who exhibit professionalism while zealously protecting client interests, ensuring the rules are followed consistently and fairly but yet remain collegial once the sparring ends. That's how he describes Burton.

"We shook hands at the end of the day, and I give utmost credit to Steve for assuring that this approach and attitude was consistent on the Republican side," he says.

It's even more a test of a professional abilities, Griffin adds, when legal and political causes intersect and competing political interests sometimes lose their civility.

"That's just a powder keg waiting to explode if you let it get away from you," Griffin adds. "But (Steve's) a damn good lawyer. He represented his client exceedingly well, and I was proud to be his adversary."

Burton remained with Moffitt Hart & Herron when it merged two years later with the Tampa office of Akerman Senterfitt PA. There he worked closely with C. Lawrence Stagg, then managing partner of Akerman's Tampa office.

"The gentleman's gentleman and a hell of a pro," Burton says of Stagg.

By 1993-'94, however, realities hit hard.

Because of student loans, the Burtons carried a negative net worth. And compensation opportunities as a young lawyer at Akerman Senterfitt were difficult to negotiate. He decided to form a partnership with Tampa attorney Brian Ross, his original supervisor at Moffitt Hart & Herron.

Two years later, Ross and Burton dissolved the partnership and separated as friends. In 1996, Burton formed the Burton & Murphy PA partnership with Jeffrey D. Murphy. The partnership flourished until Burton acted on a friend's recommendation that he sell his law practice to Broad & Cassel and take over as managing partner of its Tampa office. Since the merger in 2000, the number of attorneys under Burton in the firm's Tampa office has increased to 20 from six.

Proud geek

Early on in his law career, Burton took a particular interest in the Uniform Commercial Code. He attributes that to the geek in him. It's all about his interest in technical legal matters that affect commerce.

"I was a geek in law school and a more huge geek as a young lawyer in that work was everything," he acknowledges. "My friends in law school kidded me about liking the Uniform Commercial Code."

Burton says it is fascinating to him that a group of academics and professionals found enough common ground in the 1960s to create uniform rules and regulations to govern interstate commerce.

"That's always intrigued me how it stays somewhat uniform," he says. "So I've represented the manufacturers of goods since out of law school."

Such an interest, and a willingness to learn about technical commercial issues, quickly earned him referrals. While he zealously guards his client list, public records show over the years Burton has litigated on behalf of companies such as Waste Management Inc., Worldwide Door Components Inc., Ugly Duckling Credit Corp., Sonic Automotive Inc., PowerCerv Corp. and Caradon America Inc.

During the mid- to late-1990s, Burton undertook one of the biggest challenges of his career as lead litigator for Wisconsin-based Oshkosh Truck Corp., a company that ranks on Forbes Magazine's "Platinum 400 List." The dispute centered on about $17 million in warranty claims O.V. Containers Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Chiquita Brands International Inc., sought over a deal for 690 skeletal container chassis. It was a grueling job, Burton recalls.

In the final year of litigation, Burton says he spent about three weeks a month in New York City. The case pitted him and co-counsel Tom Scarritt, a partner at an unaffiliated Tampa law firm, against the resources of some well-heeled New York law firms.

Burton and Scarritt prevailed. In 1998, the Chiquita subsidiary ultimately accepted a $1 million settlement offer - far less than the original settlement offer. But the Oshkosh litigation took a toll.

On a typical day, for instance, Burton would tend to Oshkosh matters in a corporate boardroom. In the evening at his hotel, he responded to other client matters. He worked late into the night replying to telephone messages, writing memorandums and briefs and then faxing them. It affected his family, his health.

"I did not build the support network around me as I should have and was handling too many surgeries a day," says Burton, who likes to compare the practice of law to the practice of medicine.

During the Oshkosh litigation, Susan Burton gave birth to the couple's second child, Zack. At 3 1/2 pounds, Zack needed constant medical attention. With a slight of hand, Zack's father commandeered a hospital room and set up a satellite law office. The couple took shifts - feeding and nurturing - until the baby's health improved and they could take him home.

Meanwhile, Burton experienced a change in his own physical condition. There was shortness of breath. Sometimes his pulse rate raced. He attributed it to stress. He didn't worry too much about it, however, since he usually felt much better after a strenuous run.

Y2K

With the Oshkosh litigation settled, Burton took some time off and refocused his efforts on existing client needs. But something else also caught his interest.

In the waning moments of the 20th Century, technology experts raised concerns about a problem known as Year 2000 or Y2K. The operating software on most mainframe and personal computers used only two digits to designate the current year up through 1999. However, this practice failed to take into the account the need for four digits to allow for the advance of the 21st Century. Many feared this deficiency could cause widespread problems if, for instance, banking, airline, railroad and even government disbursement computers failed to account for the change.

As a UCC lawyer, Burton wondered about the legal implications of Y2K on his clients. What he discovered discouraged him. There was no pending legislation in either the Congress or the Florida Legislature to require businesses to become Y2K complaint - reprogramming and manufacturing computers with the four-digit capacity.

Burton contacted a state senator, who encouraged Burton to draft a bill. The bill, which later became the Florida Commerce Protection Act, defined limitations on Y2K damages, prohibited punitive damages and mandated arbitration.

Meanwhile, Burton became something of a go-to guy on issues related to Y2K and commerce. Someone in state government referred Burton to the Washington, D.C., office of now-retired Sen. Connie Mack. There Burton met officials from the U.S. Justice Department, the House Judiciary Committee and the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem.

"What surprised me was where they were in their thinking," Burton says. "They were still dealing with the power grid and nuclear power plants. I don't mean to say they were behind but there was a heck of a lot of work to be done. People don't realize how much preparation was done to avoid (Y2K) problems. There were billions and billions spent by our government. I was told I was ahead of them because they hadn't gotten to commerce yet."

Offering his services on a pro bono basis, Burton became an adviser on Y2K/UCC issues in Washington and Tallahassee. During one visit to Washington, Burton recalls, the chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill, then chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, asked him about a copy of a Florida bill the aide had obtained. It was the same bill Burton had drafted.

In the process, congressional staff asked Burton to critique a Y2K commerce bill the Clinton administration had proposed.

"Now that was fun," he recalls. "My attraction to them was not what a great guy I was or how brilliant I thought I was. I think it was because I'm a practicing lawyer involved in commerce who understands business damages, alternative dispute resolution and happened to have a few months of time off from a practice (to study the issue). It just happened; it was fascinating.

"Then I had no agenda," he adds. "I can't tell you how many times I was asked: Who are you and why are you here, especially when things started in the state? I'm not a lobbyist. I had no connections to lobbyists. I only knew a couple of House members and a couple of senators."

That changed, however, as Burton's performance with the Y2K issue won him influence with people such as Congressman Tom Feeney, R-Orlando, then a state representative who would become the House speaker; John McKay, the former Bradenton senator who became the Senate president; and Gov. Jeb Bush.

Health matters

From the very beginning of his law career, Burton adopted a philosophy that he considers somewhat common to all of his peers in the legal business.

"I found in law school and practicing law you win by outworking the opponent," he says. "You leave everything on the field."

It had been several years since he first experienced the shortness of breath and heart palpitations. So, in the spring of 2002, he conveyed the symptoms to a general medical practitioner. The physician suggested he see a specialist. Because of his work schedule, Burton ignored the recommendation.

Last year, Burton finally called the specialist and described the symptoms. The specialist convinced him to come in immediately. Within three hours, they transferred him to University Community Hospital.

"They were discussing a heart transplant," he recalls. They estimated Burton's heart capacity at 15% to 20%. Although they didn't tell him then, physicians told his wife he might have only had days to live.

While waiting for a suitable donor, surgeons installed a defibrillator into his chest. They prescribed medication. The came a miracle: the treatment worked.

"After five days in the hospital, I felt better than I had in years," says Burton, who quickly set out to reorganize his priorities.

Among the changes he made, Burton now devotes more time to his family. He also drafted a list of things he wants to eliminate. At the top of that list is trivial matters and wasted time. It also means working, eating and exercising smarter.

During the first few months of his recuperation, Burton practiced law out of his home office. Last year, he billed about 1,500 hours even with health problems. Normally, he bills about 1,800 hours a year.

The changes worked. His latest checkup revealed his heart is now operating much nearer to capacity.

"The doctors have told me I have a normal life expectancy now," he says. "I have nothing to complain about. I have a new perspective, too. So there were gifts in there."

Any doubts about diminished capacity are moot, if you take a look at Burton's recent performances. As an outside counsel, for instance, he represents the state House in highly publicized litigation over its legislative computer information system.

Tallahassee-based Hayes E-Government Resources Inc. sued last year when House Speaker Johnnie Byrd refused disbursement of $2.9 million in contracted fees. Byrd claims the company's performance fell far short of expectations. The company claims Byrd and his staff failed to provide a list of written deficiencies.

In defense of the House, Burton blocked the company's effort to regain possession of the hardware it installed. He also persuaded a Tallahassee judge to dismiss one of the allegations contained in the original complaint.

Still not content, Burton also filed counterclaims against the Tallahassee company. The counterclaims allege the company failed to meet deadlines and created so many problems that officials required the services of a third-party vendor to fix them. But this is where some in the news media challenged Burton about his involvement in the matter. He recommended one of his clients, Tampa-based Jagged Peak Inc., to fix the deficiencies in the House computer system.

Burton is convinced neither the House nor Byrd violated the contract. He says he prepared a vigorous defense in preparation for an October trial, but the Tallahassee company retreated and sought a continuance. He is confident the House will prevail because Byrd hired the right lawyer to defend against the claim. After all, Burton says his years of experience with commercial law and the UCC gives him the competitive advantage.

"It's very simple," he says. "It's not any different than any other commercial project. You have a contract, and you comply with the contract and you request payment. You don't request payment just because the amount of time has run."

 

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