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Bondi sets agenda for AG’s office

TALLAHASSEE -- New hires and changes in the structure of the attorney general’s office have set the stage for Pam Bondi’s tenure as the first woman to serve as Florida’s chief legal officer.

Bondi said she will likely push for legislation to tighten Florida’s regulation of pain clinics. BP oil spill claims, Medicaid fraud and gangs will also be areas of emphasis, she said.

Most significant: On Friday, Bondi named former state Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, to a new post focusing on prescription pill abuse.

“He’s very familiar with this issue. He cares very deeply about this issue,” Bondi, a Republican, said of Aronberg, who lost the Democratic primary for attorney general.

The fact that he’s a Democrat, she said, doesn’t matter.

“What I want to do is bring people together on all sides who all care about the issue,” she said.

The position is the only post Bondi has created in an organization with more than 1,100 employees. She is otherwise streamlining the office by eliminating three high-level jobs to trim $250,000 from the budget.

Shortly after her election, Bondi signaled she planned to make pain clinics that excessively dole out prescription drugs -- so-called pill mills -- a focus of her office. She set up a transition team that included Aronberg to examine the problem.

“We’re at a critical point in our state regarding the number of pill mills. The numbers are staggering. We’ve got to do something to stop it,” Bondi said. “Just the other day I had someone say that a friend’s child overdosed. I said, ‘It was Oxycontin, wasn’t it?’ They said, ‘How did you know?’ It’s so widespread in our state. That’s something we don’t want to be known for.”

Bondi’s move is likely to come as good news to people concerned that Gov.-elect Rick Scott opted to cut the Office of Drug Control. Aronberg will be based in South Florida and earn $92,000 a year as special counsel for the pill mill initiative.

Oil spill claims are another priority.

“BP has certainly risen to the top of my radar,” Bondi said.

She said she understands that her predecessor, Bill McCollum, wanted to give BP claims administrator Kenneth Feinberg time to respond to state residents hurt by the oil spill. But his time is up, Bondi said.

One concern is documents people signed releasing BP from further claims. Bondi worries that some business owners agreed to those terms before knowing the extent of their losses.

“I want to look at the legality of the releases they signed,” she said. A team will focus on BP, including Trish Conners, who worked on the matter for McCollum.

And then there’s Medicaid fraud. Medicaid consumes about 28 percent of Florida’s budget, and Bondi said curbing fraud is one way to rein in those costs. The approach is likely to change though, Bondi said, if the Legislature moves Medicaid patients into managed care programs. In the current system, fraud investigators look at such things as billing patterns by a pharmacy or doctor’s office. In managed care, finding fraud requires reviewing contracts.

“We have to go to a different policing system. We’ll need to have more auditors and forensic accountants involved,” she said.

Bondi also plans to organize statewide efforts to combat gangs.

“We’re going to create a statewide team,’’ she said. “That also has to include an educational component. You have to prosecute, of course, the gang members. But you also have to try to prevent kids from joining gangs.”

Bondi also will carry on McCollum’s lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of federal health care legislation. Regarding immigration bills, she said she will examine any proposed laws to make sure they’re constitutional.

Members of Bondi’s transition team say she is keeping an open mind as she prepares for office.

“It’s not a directed process. It’s a search and inquire into what’s best for the office, what will help the most,” said Alex Acosta, dean at Florida International University’s College of Law and a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida who is serving on Bondi’s Medicaid fraud team.

Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker is a co-chair of her transition team. “They’re going in a good direction,” he said. “She’s streamlining the organization and has very clear lines of authority. One of the objectives was to make sure we had good people, but also to save money from a staffing perspective.”

Bondi’s first hire was Carlos Muniz, a Marco Rubio protege who helped craft a lawsuit challenging Gov. Charlie Crist’s gambling compact with the Seminole tribe. Muniz will earn $165,000 a year as deputy attorney general and chief of staff, Bondi’s second-in-command. He will directly supervise six attorneys, with three top-level positions eliminated.

“He’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met,” Bondi said of Muniz. “He has a wonderful calm demeanor and I trust him completely.”

Observers say the structure is reminiscent of the AG offices headed by Crist, and Bob Butterworth before him.

“In an organization of that size, the flatter the better,” said Peter Antonacci, Butterworth’s deputy attorney general from 1990 to 1997. “The more oversight there is by the elected official, the better. The best way to accomplish that is by having decision-making concentrated in a single person that is accountable to her.”

Bondi hired Pat Gleason, considered an expert on open government, to fill an existing post. Gleason will put an added focus on public records issues, earning $115,000 a year.

“I campaigned on the first amendment,” Bondi said. “Transparency is very important to me.”

Gleason previously worked in Gov. Crist’s office. Bondi and Gleason got acquainted when Bondi was a spokesperson for the state attorney’s office in Hillsborough County.

And this week, Bondi hired Nick Cox as Florida’s statewide prosecutor, earning $125,000 a year. Cox and Bondi met about 20 years ago while working in Hillsborough’s state attorney’s office. He also has worked for the attorney general, and most recently served as west central Florida director of the Department of Children and Families.

On day one, he said, he wants to connect with state attorneys, sheriffs and chief judges throughout Florida. That, he said, should help Bondi achieve some of her goals, including cracking down on gangs and pill mills.

“One thing I learned in DCF and law enforcement, you’re all on the same side and you’ve really got to work together to be effective,” he said.