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Three Suspended Over Racially-Charged Mailers

Three top executives with Florida’s largest trial lawyer organization have been punished for their roles in sending a racially-charged mailer during last month’s combative Republican primary for a state Senate seat.

The Florida Justice Association said Friday that executive director Scott Carruthers, general counsel Paul Jess, and Albert Balido, director of the association’s political action committee, were temporarily suspended following an internal investigation led by former state Supreme Court Justice Gerald Kogan,.

In another change, the FJA formed a member-driven oversight committee that will review all electioneering material and spending.

“We repeat FJA’s apology for our financial role in the offensive and appalling absentee mail piece,” said FJA President Michael Haggard. “We have enacted a series of reforms based on the information generated by Justice Kogan’s inquiry and the findings of the report so that this never happens again.”

Campaign finance records show the mailing went to almost 90,000 households in Florida’s Senate District 8, which stretches from Jacksonville to Daytona Beach. The campaign was part of an effort to blunt support for eventual winner John Thrasher, a former House speaker and Florida Medical Association lobbyist opposed by the trial lawyers.

The piece displayed photos of President Barack Obama, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton and Black Panthers, questioning, “Is this change you want to believe in?”

The mailing also warned that “armed thugs” could meet voters at the polls.

FJA last week admitted the piece went through a pair of allied political committees working to defeat Thrasher – the Conservative Voters Coalition and Conservative Citizens for Justice.

The 527 committees, named after the section of the IRS code under which they are created, are unregulated in Florida after a court earlier this year ruled unconstitutional a requirement that they disclose their contributors and register with the Florida Secretary of State.

The harsh-edged campaigning in the Senate race is prompting calls from both Democrats and Republicans for new regulations requiring more disclosure about which organizations are behind these murky political groups.

But the campaign tactic also has sparked outrage from the 24-member Legislative Black Caucus, threatening the trial lawyers’ bonds with a longtime ally. Business groups which backed Thrasher say they believe his election could help usher in a new wave of civil justice limits that could limit the practices of many plaintiffs’ attorneys.

“It is obvious from the mailer that the FJA, who created, approved and funded this mailer has racially biased proclivities that are manifested in their thinking and actions,” Siplin wrote in a letter last month to the trial lawyers.

When told Friday of the FJA’s action, Siplin said he felt the temporary suspensions may not be enough.

“We’re going to stand by our position, that we feel there should be a complete house-cleaning of anybody involved,” Siplin said.

Kogan concluded that members of the organization and its executive committee did not “see, approve or have any knowledge” of the absentee mail piece until after it was sent out.

But the inquiry revealed that Balido, Jess and Carruthers were aware of the mailing – but felt they were not in a position to step in since it was being sent by political committees not directly controlled by the FJA.

In the report, Balido is quoted speaking about a meeting among the three in which that conclusion was reached.

“I think at least for us, that’s where we lost our moral compass,” Balido said. “I think we made a legal decision instead of a moral one.”

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