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Crist's former chief prospers in new role
George LeMieux's law firm lands a big state contract.
By Steve Bousquet, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published February 10, 2008
George LeMieux, left, has kept in close touch with Gov. Charlie Crist since resigning in December.
TALLAHASSEE -- Shortly before Gov. Charlie Crist's former chief of staff left government to return to his old law firm, the firm landed a $500,000 contract with the state Transportation Department.
George LeMieux, whom Crist nicknamed "the maestro" for his role in the governor's 2006 victory, said he played no role in the state's decision to hire his firm.
The agency confirmed that and said LeMieux's firm, Gunster Yoakley, was selected because of the expertise of a partner in railroad law. The one-year contract seeks the firm's advice as the state pursues purchase of the Florida East Coast Railroad, a key corridor bisecting heavily congested South Florida.
The contract is one of two assignments LeMieux has secured since leaving Crist's administration last month.
He's also now a paid consultant to state Republican Party chairman Jim Greer, meaning that LeMieux will continue to play a strategic role in the 2008 presidential election and beyond.
The Transportation Department and Gunster Yoakley signed a one-year contract on Dec. 20. LeMieux left government 11 days later. The contract lists LeMieux as one of eight lawyers working on legal matters at $500 an hour, which he said is a discounted rate.
"If there are opportunities to do good legal work and people in the administration would like to engage our firm, we're interested in doing that, as are a lot of other lawyers in the state," LeMieux said.
He declined to discuss details of his firm's work for the department, saying he was bound by attorney-client privilege.
LeMieux, 38, could have parlayed his political connections into a career as a lobbyist, as some former chiefs of staff have.
Instead, he's working to raise the profile of his Fort Lauderdale-based firm in the state capital. Few doubt that Gunster Yoakley will benefit greatly from LeMieux's close ties to the governor, but LeMieux and the Transportation Department say he played no role in the agency's recent hiring of the firm.
Firm has railroad knowledge
The department used its discretion under Florida law to handpick the firm for advice on the possible Florida East Coast Railroad purchase, which is in the exploratory stages and could take years to complete if the railroad is willing to sell.
The agency's general counsel, Alexis Yarbrough, said it was necessary to choose a firm based in urbanized South Florida. She chose Gunster Yoakley because a partner, Robert Hackleman, has extensive knowledge of complex railroad law, she said.
"I called Bob Hackleman," Yarbrough said. "I have come to trust and rely on their expertise."
In a Jan. 17 e-mail to LeMieux, Yarbrough wrote: "We are excited about working with your team on this project."
The department previously hired Gunster Yoakley in November on another one-year, $500,000 contract for advice on litigation dealing with Florida's Turnpike and a gas transmission pipeline. The contract indicates LeMieux has no role.
Yarbrough, who oversees both contracts, formerly worked for the Fort Lauderdale firm of Tripp Scott, which has long had a close working relationship with Gunster Yoakley. She said the two firms referred clients to each other when legal conflicts arose.
LeMieux is a cum laude graduate of Georgetown University law school and worked for Gunster Yoakley from 1994 to 2002 before leaving to work as then-Attorney General Crist's top aide.
The political ties that bind
LeMieux remains close to his former boss. Crist said that he and LeMieux talk "probably daily," and added, "I think it's very important to continue to have his good counsel. ... He's mature beyond his years."
The governor said he had no involvement in the Transportation Department's decision to hire his ex-aide's law firm. "I don't really get involved in that," said Crist, who noted that Gunster Yoakley had previously done work for the transportation agency.
Party chairman Greer said he approached LeMieux early last month and offered him a part-time consulting position, focusing on get-out-the-vote efforts, minority outreach and improving ties with county party committees. LeMieux is a former chairman of the Broward County Republican Party.
"He certainly has a great deal of experience at winning campaigns, and that's what my No. 1 responsibility as party chairman," Greer said.
He said LeMieux will be put on a retainer and that the salary has not been set. It is expected to be about $10,000 a month, slightly less than his salary as chief of staff.