Uproar over Gulfcoast Legal Services debated in Manatee, Sarasota

skennedy@bradenton.comOctober 10, 2013 

MANATEE -- An uproar involving Gulfcoast Legal Services Inc., a nonprofit that provides free legal aid to the poor, has spawned a political debate that spans two counties.

The Manatee County Commission has directed its staff to report on whether it should continue to provide about $10,000 annually to Gulfcoast Legal as the Florida Bar investigates Gulfcoast Executive Director Kathleen Mullin on accusations of "unlicensed practice of law."

The Sarasota County Commission has already halted its annual $89,000 in funding for Gulfcoast Legal.

"We stopped their funding last year, and did not award them funding this year," said Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson. "We allocated their funding to ManaSota Legal Aid, which is our local legal aid."

The Florida Bar, the state licensing agency for attorneys, is investigating complaints Mullin practiced law without a license, according to Francine Walker, director of public information.

Mullin said she has not given any legal advice and expects to be cleared.

Mullin also came under scrutiny for firing Gulfcoast attorney Elizabeth Boyle last spring. Boyle said she was simply trying to help a young quadraplegic.

In an interview Wednesday with the Herald, Boyle said: "I was helping her, and the executive director said I had to close the case. I offered to take the case outside of Gulfcoast, and I never heard back from her. ... She put it as a reason to suspend me."

Mullin also fired long-term volunteers from the Sarasota office, Boyle said.

"We had between part-time and full-time, about 24 people, not all attorneys, but there were senior retired attorneys who were fired last spring about one month after she started," said Boyle.

Commissioners voiced reservations about the personnel decisions.

"I'm concerned about the fact that the new executive director fired the pro bono lawyers and volunteers working for Gulfcoast," County Commission Chairman Larry Bustle said Wednesday.

When asked, Mullin said just one person was fired, and "not an inordinately large amount" of people resigned.

Last month, Boyle's husband, Bradenton Police Chief Michael Radzilowski, wrote a formal complaint to Manatee County commissioners, urging they halt Gulfcoast Legal's funding.

"The issue is for me that all the police chiefs, sheriff, and the county should be concerned about is where Article 5 money goes," said Radzilowski. "It's the money the legal aid people get from arrests and traffic fines. ...If you're not going to help the most needy people in our county, maybe our county shouldn't fund you."

Boyle said her attorney had asked her to limit her discussion of the case, and Radzilowski said he and his wife were filing suit over the matter.

Mullin confirmed the Florida Bar is investigating complaints about her. She said she is legally constrained in her ability to discuss the case.

"We're fully confident they'll be resolved in our favor, and we've cooperated fully," said Mullin.

She may legally practice in New York and New Jersey, but not in Florida, she said.

Asked if she gives legal advice, she replied, "No. I'm executive director, so I am fundamentally the organization's administrative Green Eyeshade."

Asked about the case involving the paraplegic, Mullin said the woman "wasn't our client."

"We try long and hard to help every person but, with grant restrictions, we can't help folks with things other than legal problems," Mullin said.

Boyle said Mullin was incorrect about the status of the client: "We had already opened the case," Boyle said.

"We are still helping this young lady," said Boyle, who is aiding another attorney with pro bono cases while she looks for work.

To qualify for help from Gulfcoast, a person must be income-eligible and fit within grant parameters, Mullin said.

"With those being the criteria, we analyze every potential client and there are clients who fall outside those parameters," she said. "To help every person who comes to us, it's simply not possible."

Mullin said her agency employs 34 people, mostly full-time, and serves about 800 clients a year in Manatee County. It also operates offices in Sarasota, Clearwater and St. Petersburg.

In the past, Manatee County provided $10,000 to Gulfcoast, and about $60,000 annually to another nonprofit with a similar mission, Legal Aid of ManaSota, according to County Commissioner Michael Gallen. The agencies worked harmoniously together for years, which Gallen hopes will continue, he said.

"We fund hundreds of agencies through the county," Gallen said. "To me, we should be focusing on the indigent care Gulfcoast provides -- they do a lot of work with domestic violence, family issues, foreclosures. The money doesn't go to director, it goes toward what they provide. I think they should still get the money."

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.

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