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Judge: Crist meddled in case

The attorney general had a whistle-blower lawsuit unsealed, provoking a state judge who threatens sanctions.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published April 13, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - A judge has threatened to sanction Attorney General Charlie Crist for getting involved in a politically charged case about a government whistle-blower and a troubled privatization venture.

Circuit Judge Thomas Bateman III's strongly worded order came after Crist got an emergency hearing on a Saturday before another judge and had the whistle-blower's sealed lawsuit opened for the first time.

In the lawsuit, Sam McDowell accused his former employer, Convergys Corp., of failing to safeguard sensitive personal information when it began handling the state's massive payroll operation. The $350-million contract has been fraught with controversy.

Bateman's Tuesday order called the attorney general a "non-party interloper" in the case, and he gave Crist's office one week to explain why he should not impose sanctions against Crist's office.

The attorney general's office "is impeding the court's ability to control the case by filing unauthorized papers" and by seeking hearings to which it is not entitled, Bateman wrote.

"We respectfully disagree with his assessment," Crist said. He said his office will file a motion today explaining why it should be allowed to join the case.

Bateman disputed Crist's right to intervene in the case, known as a qui tam action in which private citizens seek money damages from the government for such things as fraud.

The fight between Florida's top legal officer and a state judge is largely procedural, but could have implications in the governor's race.

Crist, a Republican candidate for governor, sought emergency intervention in the case the day after McDowell filed two ethics complaints accusing Crist and his former chief of staff, George LeMieux, of refusing to act on his allegations against Convergys. McDowell said Crist's inaction was because Convergys has financial links to Crist's campaign.

Convergys is a Republican donor, and Brian Ballard, a Convergys lobbyist, is a fundraiser and adviser to Crist's campaign.

McDowell's attorney, Steve Andrews, supports Crist's GOP rival, Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, in the gubernatorial race.

McDowell's ethics complaints followed a Florida Democratic Party broadside against Crist in which the Democrats said Crist "ducked and ran from the issue" rather than live up to his self-styled reputation as a watchdog against identity theft.

The Convergys contract has been plagued by recurring problems, ranging from paychecks being issued overdue, to lower-than-anticipated cost savings, to allegations of identity theft, to a critical state audit of the project.

In the wake of revelations that a Convergys subcontractor shipped personal information about state workers to India and Barbados, the Management Services Department has sent alerts to thousands of state workers, urging them to carefully protect their personal information.

Crist's lawyer, Assistant Attorney General Chesterfield Smith Jr., went to a deserted county courthouse in Tallahassee on Saturday, March 25, where County Judge Don Modesitt, the weekend duty judge, held a brief hearing and unsealed the lawsuit, which by law was confidential for a certain period of time.

Crist took responsibility for the decision to seek a weekend hearing, rather than wait until Monday morning.

"It was done with my approval," he said.

Crist said his motivation was practical, not political. He said his office was besieged by media inquiries about McDowell's claims, but the confidentiality provision made it impossible to respond.

Crist's chief of staff, Clay Roberts, said a staff attorney, Cecilia Bradley, called Judge Bateman's office on Friday, March 24, and requested an emergency hearing, but that Bateman suggested she go to the courthouse Saturday and seek a hearing then.

"I don't think he knew which case we were talking about," Roberts said.

In an interview Wednesday, Bateman said he recalled a woman phoned him at 6:05 p.m. that day to find out how to seek an emergency order, but that she did not identify herself or mention the specifics of the case.

"I cautioned the person, that it has to be a true emergency," Bateman said. "Someone's life or limb has to be at stake."

Andrews, McDowell's attorney, said that despite Crist's contention that the case was public, McDowell never cited his lawsuit in his ethics complaints. Andrews accused Crist of being motivated by politics.

"The only emergency was a political emergency," Andrews said. "Charlie was being criticized around the state for his lack of action on Convergys."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

ANGRY WORDS

An excerpt from Circuit Judge Thomas Bateman III's order in which he threatens to impose sanctions on Attorney General Charlie Crist's office:

"(T)he Department, by the actions it has taken in this case to date thereby making it a non-party interloper, is impeding the court's ability to control the progress of the case by filing unauthorized papers and requesting the court to give it time on its calendar to which it is not entitled. Therefore, it is ordered and adjudged that the Department, within seven calendar days of the date of this order, shall show cause why this court should not impose sanctions against it and its counsel of record."