The Florida Supreme Court has reprimanded a Tallahassee lawyer, finding him guilty of “misconduct” for trying to extort U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan in connection with several lawsuits he filed against the congressman.
Douglas S. Lyons filed 11 lawsuits in 2008, alleging various types of fraud at Buchanan’s auto dealerships. But the lawsuits perhaps were most significant because of the political threat they posed to Buchanan, as some also included allegations of improper fundraising by his campaign organization -- a legal predicament that until recently clouded Buchanan’s political future.
Lyons denied trying to extort Buchanan. But he said Wednesday in an interview with the Herald that he pleaded guilty to the misconduct allegations because they included a charge that his law firm had improperly mailed a solicitation to customers of one of Buchanan’s companies, which he acknowledged is true.
The Supreme Court ordered Lyons to pay $1,450 for the cost of the investigation. Lyons said he also was ordered to attend a class about law firm solicitations.
Buchanan’s campaign trumpeted the Supreme Court’s decision.
Mark Ornstein, an Orlando attorney who has represented Buchanan’s auto dealership businesses for more than 10 years, filed the original ethics complaint against Lyons with the Florida Bar that culminated with the reprimand.
“I think that the Supreme Court made a ruling that Mr. Lyons’ behavior as it related to the cases, as it regarded Vern Buchanan, was improper,” Ornstein said.
In reprimanding Lyons, the Supreme Court on Jan. 24 accepted a consent agreement filed by a “referee” detailing meetings Lyons had in 2008 with representatives of Buchanan after the first lawsuit was filed.
During one meeting, according to the referee’s report, Lyons alleged “criminal” and “illegal” activity at Buchanan’s companies, and demanded $43 million to settle the claims. At a subsequent meeting, Lyons said Buchanan was guilty of “campaign fraud, tax fraud and immigration violations and stated he should not run for re-election.”
“He further stated that Buchanan needed to determine ‘what his freedom was worth,’” the report states.
After investigating the claims, Ornstein told Lyons that Buchanan was not interested in settling the lawsuit that had been filed and others that had been threatened.
Lyons told Ornstein, “I consider this death by a thousand cuts, and I hope he has enjoyed his stint in Congress because it is coming to an end. I hope he has enjoyed his life,” the report states.
Eventually, Lyons filed 10 other lawsuits in the weeks leading up to the 2008 election.
The referee’s report also found that in October 2008, Lyons improperly mailed an unsolicited advertisement to individuals listed on records obtained from one or more former employees of Buchanan’s companies.
Lyons acknowledged that his law firm had “screwed up” by sending out the solicitation without a proper disclaimer. Accepting the reprimand was the best deal he could get before the Supreme Court, Lyons said.
But as the consent agreement notes, Lyons denied trying to extort Buchanan.
Lyons said “extortion” involves threatening someone with reporting them to the authorities.
“I did not threaten to take him anywhere,” Lyons said. “What I did say was that if we don’t settle this, bad things could happen.”
Lyons denied being politically motivated to file the lawsuits, and said he thought the complaints would change Buchanan’s behavior.
But Lyons said subsequent events, including the dismissal of 10 of the 11 lawsuits -- the 11th is in arbitration -- and the Federal Elections Commission’s decision last year to close an investigation of Buchanan’s campaign finances, show that he is a “Teflon congressman.”