Foley & Lardner logo in Miami.
Foley & Lardner logo in Miami. (J. Albert Diaz)

The outgoing head of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is joining Foley & Lardner­—one of several firms that the state agreed to pay millions of dollars to help with high-stakes litigation over water rights. The move comes just two months after Foley was also granted a state contract worth $96,000 to handle more than $3 billion Florida received as a result of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

Jon Steverson, who has led the state’s DEP for the past two years, announced his resignation last week amid controversy surrounding his management of a contract for outside legal counsel that had mushroomed by more than $54.4 million in the past two years for work related to a water war between Florida and Georgia. Foley is the second-highest paid of the four law firms hired to handle the case for Florida.

Steverson’s predecessor at the DEP, Herschel Vinyard Jr., is also an attorney at Foley. He was hired by the firm, where he is of counsel, after he left the Florida DEP in 2014.

According to documents obtained by The Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times, the contract specified that Foley & Lardner would be paid $2.6 million between 2015 and 2017 to handle the ongoing water litigation.

Latham & Watkins, which is lead counsel in the litigation, would get $35.9 million for its work on the case, according to the Herald/Times. Blankenau Wilmoth Jarecke was to receive $1 million and Carlton Fields Jorden Burt would be paid $966,000.

In total, the four law firms have billed the state $97.8 million in that litigation since 2001, and the state has spent $71.9 million to date, according to Florida’s House Appropriations Committee.

Neither Foley & Lardner nor Latham & Watkins responded to repeated requests for comment.

More than half of the millions billed since 2001 was for work done in the last two years, after Florida asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and the court appointed a special master. That special master is soon expected to make a recommendation on the case, which relates to how, as Georgia’s water needs have grown, the amount of freshwater flowing downstream to Florida has decreased. Florida wants to limit Georgia’s consumption and argues the Apalachicola Bay and River, and the surrounding community, are being strangled by Georgia’s increasing water use. Florida’s oystermen have long argued the reduced flows have devastated their industry.

Two weeks ago, the Florida DEP requested an additional $17 million in taxpayer funds to cover legal fees in the ongoing litigation, bringing the total for the year to about $41 million. That prompted House Appropriations Committee chairman Carlos Trujillo, who is a civil litigation lawyer with the Miami law firm Trujillo Vargas Gonzalez & Hevia, to request a detailed breakdown of the expenses, He said the numbers struck him as “excessive.” Two days later, Steverson announced his retirement, effective Feb. 3.

According to the spreadsheet obtained by the Herald/Times, Latham & Watkins charged $395 an hour for lawyers with three years or less experience and $575 an hour for lawyers with three to 10 years of experience. The firm billed the state for 32-35 full-time legal staff for 40 hours a week for more than four months, the newspaper reported.

Latham also billed $825 an hour for work performed by partners.

Foley & Lardner charged $220 an hour for associates with five years or less experience, and $450 an hour for partners.

The state has since withdrawn its request for the additional taxpayer funds.

Latham’s lead partner on the case, Gregory Garre, is a former U.S. solicitor general who has argued 41 cases before the Supreme Court and has briefed and served as counsel of record in hundreds of cases before the Court, according to the bio published on the firm’s website.

The more recent contract, which was awarded to Foley in November, says the DEP will pay the firm $96,000 a year to represent the state in meetings of the Restore Council—a coalition of states and federal agencies that oversee spending of the settlement money from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

In 2015, Florida was awarded part of that settlement, which petroleum giant BP reached with the Gulf states after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. That oil spill blackened the Florida Panhandle’s white beaches, killed and deformed wildlife and damaged Florida’s tourism and commercial fishing industry.

Steverson could not be reached for comment, but Ben Wilcox of the watchdog group Integrity Florida told the Times/Hereald that the hiring of the head of the DEP by a firm that recently received a DEP contract “doesn’t pass the smell test.” Gov. Rick Scott said that he has no problem with Steverson taking a job with a firm that has a contract with the agency he led.

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