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Mel Martinez joins law firm in Orlando

The former secretary of housing and urban development may run for Bob Graham's Senate seat.

SCOTT BARANCIK
Published December 24, 2003

It may not last long, but Mel Martinez has a new job.

Martinez, a former Orange County chairman who resigned as U.S. housing secretary two weeks ago, is joining the Orlando office of the Akerman Senterfitt law firm under a one-year contract.

How long Martinez will stay with the firm may depend on whether he runs as expected for the U.S. Senate - and if so, on his ability to wrest the Republican nomination from a crowded field that includes former Rep. Bill McCollum, state House Speaker Johnnie Byrd and state Sen. Daniel Webster. The seat is being vacated by Democrat Bob Graham.

Akerman chairman Tom Cardwell said the 360-lawyer firm would be comfortable letting Martinez, 57, run in the primary while working part time as a nonpartner attorney, though it probably would part company with him if he won the nomination.

"There'll be an understanding that I may have to be gone a good bit," Martinez said. "And I'll be deciding that pretty soon."

In addition to name recognition and access, Cardwell said Martinez offers Akerman experience in county politics and federal housing policy, as well as ties to Latin America and the Hispanic community.

"If we have a client who has an issue before HUD, Mel can consult with them," Cardwell said. "But (under federal law) he can't pick up the phone and lobby for them."

Well-known Akerman clients include SunTrust Bank, Lennar Homes, TECO Energy, Lockheed Martin and the Catholic Diocese of Orlando.

Martinez practiced personal injury law in Orlando for 25 years before entering Orange County politics. He said he spoke with several law firms about jobs this month. Bowman Brown, chairman of the executive committee at Shutts & Bowen LLP in Miami, said his firm was willing to offer Martinez a partnership slot immediately.

"Law firms, in a very general way, benefit from the notoriety, if it's positive, of their partners," Brown said. "The other side of that sword is that billable hours tend to diminish during a campaign."

Martinez said his close ties to several Akerman attorneys tipped the scale. The hire was a long time coming for Cardwell, who in 1973 took Martinez to dinner in an attempt to recruit the freshly minted law school grad.

Martinez's predicament is the opposite of former Holland & Knight managing partner Bill McBride's. He took a leave of absence from the firm in 2001 to ponder a run for governor. Ten months after losing the general election to Jeb Bush, he joined a different firm.

Caldwell described the Akerman firm as politically neutral. Federal Election Commission data shows Akerman's political action committee has doled out nearly $218,000 to federal candidates or committees since 1995-96. It made its largest contributions to the state Republican Party, though it has supported some Democrats. Over the years, Akerman has employed such prominent Democrats as Florida Democratic Party chairman Scott Maddux and former Senate President Mallory Horne.

If Martinez does decide to run for the Senate, Caldwell said, Akerman would probably contribute to his campaign - and to several competitors' as well. "We are equal opportunity givers," he said.

- Times staff writer Alisa Ulferts and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or 727 893-8751.

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