State official's legal work brings questions

Published March 17, 2007

On Jan. 8, Gov. Charlie Crist named Tom Pelham the new secretary of the agency that oversees growth management, the Department of Community Affairs.

A month later, on Valentine's Day, Pelham was representing a Palm Harbor developer in a land-use case. He delivered an oral argument to judges from the 2nd District Court of Appeal at a hearing in Tampa.

"We were all pretty astounded he appeared," said D. Scott Douglas, who is helping to bankroll one side of the lawsuit. "It's a pretty obvious conflict of interest."

Not to Pelham it isn't. He said the matters involved in the case of Innisbrook Condominium Association vs. Pinellas County and Golf Host Resorts Inc. don't involve anything that his agency would oversee.

The same goes for the other case he's still handling as a private attorney, he said. He's representing two local governments, Walton County and the city of Destin, in a dispute over property rights and beach renourishment. He is scheduled to make an oral argument in front of the Florida Supreme Court next month.

"It's a simple matter of a lawyer has an obligation to his clients," he said.

Both lawsuits began before he accepted his government post, Pelham said. Even after he became a public servant, he said, "I had an ethical, contractual obligation to represent the clients."

He said he told the governor's staff about the two cases before Crist gave him the job and "they said they had no problem with that." The governor's press office did not respond Friday to repeated requests for comment.

Pelham said he took personal leave time from his state job to deal with the Innisbrook appeal and did not charge the state for his travel expense.

None of the other attorneys involved in the hearing objected to Pelham's involvement, said Assistant Pinellas County Attorney David Sadowsky.

However, Susan Fox, a Tampa attorney representing the Innisbrook condo association, told the appeals judges that she was worried Pelham's state job might persuade them to give his argument greater weight, according to Douglas.

The Innisbrook case grew out of plans by Pelham's client, Bayfair Innisbrook F LLC, to build 35 condominium buildings and a high-rise on the back nine of a golf course at the Westin Innisbrook Golf Resort. Pelham, who went into private practice as a land-use lawyer after serving as Department of Community Affairs secretary under Gov. Bob Martinez, said he was hired by the developer to work on the project five years ago.

The condo association and several landowners in the surrounding developments contended the resort is already overbuilt by about 300 dwellings and there were no development rights left on the land. When Pinellas County approved the project in 2005, the landowners and the association sued.

Douglas, who developed the Highlands at Innisbrook subdivision, is paying the bills for the Highlands landowners involved in the suit. The county and Pelham's client won at the trial court level, and last month the appeals court let that decision stand.

Pelham's other case puts him on the same side as another state agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Two groups, Save Our Beaches and Stop the Beach Renourishment Inc., have sued to stop the state from putting new sand on eroding beaches because, they say, it will take away their ownership rights to the beach. The 1st District Court of Appeal agreed, so Walton County, Destin and the DEP have appealed. The Florida League of Cities and Florida Association of Counties joined on the side of the government.

Richard Brightman, who is representing Save Our Beaches and Stop the Beach Renourishment, said he didn't see a problem with Pelham siding against his clients.

"Perhaps it's a little unusual," he said. "But the cases stand or fall on the merit of the argument, not on the identity of the person making them."