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Putting Knowledge and ‘People Skills’ to Work

Government relations professionals play an important role in advancing the interests of business, investment and financial clients.  In South Florida, they help companies prepare successful bids for municipal, state and federal contracts, advise clients on meeting regulatory standards, and serve as advocates in legal disputes. They also draw on their knowledge to look into the future and help clients position themselves to meet the challenges of the next few years. Here are insights from five of South Florida’s leading government relations professionals.

Bob Butterworth: Helping Companies Do the Right Thing

As Florida’s Attorney General, Robert “Bob” A. Butterworth received national recognition for enforcing victim and consumer protection, environmental, civil rights and antitrust laws.  In addition to his leadership in the multi-state litigation against the tobacco industry, he was responsible for the passage of numerous Florida statutes and was the impetus behind amendments to Florida’s Constitution expanding open government to all three branches of government and reforming the state’s antiquated Cabinet system. He also served as a county judge, circuit judge, prosecutor and Broward County sheriff.

Drawing on that career in public service, Butterworth advises corporate and business clients in a wide range of matters in his government relations practice at Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney in Fort Lauderdale.

“When it comes to regulations, most large companies want to do the right thing,” he said. “It saves time and money and gives the company a good reputation. If there are new rules that are crazy, you can file an appeal.”

A large aspect of Butterworth’s practice is corporate ethics and integrity audits, making sure that key decision-makers in an organization know the rules and understand how to follow them. For instance, he assisted a publicly traded utility with an integrity audit, helping it rebuild public trust.

Butterworth said businesses seeking to influence government action should think carefully about the impression they want to make. “Going in as a bully or making threats doesn’t go over well,” he said. “It’s also not a good idea to tell a staffer that you’ve donated money to a public official who will be watching. The system simply doesn’t work that way.  It’s far better to treat everyone with courtesy when you present your case.”

“If a company does get off on the wrong foot, I can come in and analyze what they’ve done,” Butterworth said. “If someone has gone over the line, I talk with the senior executives about monitoring and changing practices going forward.” For instance, a new company policy or training program might be necessary.

“If the client has done nothing wrong, we tackle that issue head on,” Butterworth added. “After all, sometimes a government entity takes action based on the wrong information.”

Even if the company has a strong legal case, Butterworth says it’s important to analyze the business aspects as well. A protracted dispute with a regulatory agency could lead to negative publicity in the “court of public opinion,” potentially reducing the company’s value. “With social media and search engines, a regulatory issue can take on a life of its own,” he added. “You have to factor public relations and the media impact into the decision-making process.”

Having been involved in city, county, state and federal government, Butterworth says legislators and regulators see their job as protecting their citizens. “That is absolutely correct,” he added. “If they see a business get out of line, their job is to correct the situation. A company that deliberately breaks the rules, hoping to get away with something, deserves to be sanctioned.”

Al Cardenas: Advising on Regulatory Matters and Trends

In a career spanning more than four decades, Alberto “Al” R. Cardenas has served as an adviser to U.S. presidents, as counsel of record in precedent-setting court decisions, and as a commentator and writer on issues of national importance. Now, he draws on that government relations experience as a senior partner with Squire Patton Boggs in Miami.

“There are three basic reasons clients come to us,” Cardenas said. “They want to prevent laws and regulations that would impact their bottom line, defend themselves from burdens that would hamper their operations and shareholders, or they would like to see government implement ideas that would be good for the public sector, as well as their companies. I understand how those processes work.”

Cardenas is active on the local, state and federal government level, helping clients in regulated industries like financial services, energy and home building understand current issues and implement an overall strategy for the future. “Some clients come in for an ‘annual checkup’ while others need ‘emergency room’ assistance,” he said. “In either case, my goal is to help them navigate the government waters.”

Early in his law career, Cardenas worked with Robert Traurig, co-founder of Greenberg Traurig, and then spent 24 years with Thomas Tew.  After Tew died in 2014, Cardenas joined Squire Sanders Bogg.  Cardenas has also been active in the
Republican Party, assisting Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and serving two terms as Florida chairman of the party.

Now, Cardenas is the federal practice leader in his firm’s Washington, D.C, office, and active in its lobbying practice in Tallahassee. He is also active in government-related legal work in Miami in areas such as bonds and public financing.

Through the years, Cardenas has seen a steady growth in the regulatory aspects of government. “I have seen estimates that businesses today spend $2 trillion to be in compliance with federal regulations,” he said. “One of our jobs is to make sure our clients understand the full embrace of the regulatory environment.”

“To be a good government relations attorney, you have to know the subject matter and keep up with what Congress, the state Legislature and the regulatory agencies are proposing,” he said. “You also need to nurture relationship with decision-makers, and understand their values and learn their vision for the next five to 10 years.”

For instance, an electric utility might need to generate more power to serve customers in the future. “What kind of plant should you design and what fuels should it use?” he said. “You want to be sure that whatever you build will be reliable and withstand the scrutiny of the environmental trends of tomorrow.”

That’s also true for start-ups in fields like information technology and transportation. “Bright young entrepreneurs who launched successful technology companies like Uber, Facebook and Google find themselves facing new challenges from local, state and federal government,” Cardenas said. “This is one of the growth areas for government relations firms.”

Cardenas adds that the volume of information flowing from Washington and Tallahassee is far too much for one person to absorb, and a small lobbying firm can only maintain expertise in narrow areas. You need a large platform with attorneys who understand different industries to provide quality service to clients.”

While many businesses are unhappy about the high level of regulation, Cardenas says it’s not a good strategy to try to fight government every day. “Making enemies is not in your best interest,” he said. “Unless an agency is trying to shut down your operations, you need to look beyond the immediate issue and have a long-range perspective.”

Bill Cea:  Helping Clients Win Government Bids

William “Bill” J. Cea is one of South Florida’s leading procurement attorneys, helping clients win or defend major dollar bids and proposals. A shareholder with Becker & Poliakoff in West Palm Beach, Cea is a board-certified construction attorney and Certified Circuit Court Mediator.

“Public procurement is a very fast-paced and detail-oriented area of the law,” said Cea. “It’s not a ‘one size fits all ‘ approach since every public agency is different. There are special districts, municipalities and counties – each with its own rules – as well as state statutes and federal laws.”

Through the years, Cea has handled federal, state and local bids in many sectors, including construction, professional services, food and vendor concessions, towing, information technology, landscaping and property management, airport services, and office services throughout Florida.

For example, Cea helped a client secure and defend a multimillion-dollar contract with the Palm Beach County School Board to provide supplemental academic instructional services, and successfully defended a challenge to a client’s contract for the construction of the new Broward County Courthouse.

Cea advises clients at every step of the procurement process, even before a request for proposal (RFP) or a bid is advertised. “Sometimes a client may feel that the terms and conditions of an ongoing contract are unfair,” he said. “Or an RFP may be tailored in such a way that only one manufacturer can meet the requirements. I help the competitors level the playing field.”

Once an agency had advertised for bids, clients typically formulate the business terms of their proposals. However, they might not understand the legal implications of submitting a bid, Cea said.  “Firms are well served by going over the general requirements with counsel before submitting a bid,” Cea said.  “For example, the RFP may have provisions regarding subcontractors, licenses or posting bonds that could be overlooked. Submitting the right bond form from an insurance agency can be the difference between gaining a lucrative contract or losing out.”

When an advertisement for an RFP is pending, there are restrictions on lobbying the agency. Calling the wrong person, such as a councilman or mayor, might disqualify the company from getting the bid.

“When a client wants to protest the specifications in an advertisement, you have to act quickly,” Cea said. “At the state level, you have to file a challenge within 72 hours after the ad is published or your motion may later be dismissed.”

Cea also attends public meetings with clients and helps them gather information from public records. “Many clients want to get information on their competitors, and also see how the agency analyzed the bids,” he said. “Since a 2012 change in the Sunshine Law, agencies have been allowed to close portions of these meetings during the discussion, and reopen them when they hold the vote.”

After the review and ranking of the bids an agency typically posts a “notice of recommended award.”  On the state level, a losing bidder has only 72 hours to file a notice of intent to protest the decision. “The timing varies with local agencies, but the timing is always short,” he said. “There are also limits on who can protest – a firm that came in second or third in the ranking would probably have standing, but not one that came in tenth.”

On the other hand, the firm winning the bid may want to intervene in any procedure and have a seat at the table to argue against the protest, Cea said. “In general, a court doesn’t want to make a judgment call unless the award was clearly arbitrary.”

Cea said he saw a spike in bid protests from construction companies during the recession because they needed the public sector projects. “Now, there is less dependency on public bids because the private work has bounced back,” he said. “But there are still plenty of ‘make or break’ bids for government contracts, such as janitorial or food service contracts at major airports.  It’s important for firms to consult with legal counsel when preparing, submitting and defending those bids.”

Melinda S. Gentile: Building Public-Private Partnerships

Melinda S. Gentile believes that public-private partnerships (P3) can offer great opportunities for construction and development companies.  A partner with Peckar & Abramson in Miami and a board certified construction law attorney, Gentile helps clients seeking to tackle these major infrastructure projects.

“My colleagues and I assist clients on the federal, state and local level, on both P3 projects and traditional bids,” said Gentile who has 30 years of experience in her legal field. “ “Right now, there is robust construction activity among our government agencies.”

In the past few years, her firm has represented general contractors in billions of dollars of P3 projects, including the I-595 expansion in Broward County, the PortMiami tunnel, and expansions at Miami International Airport and Orlando International Airport.

Gentile says the P3 approach usually emanates from a government agency that needs a project completed but wants a private partner to fund the cost. “But, an agency will certainly listen to a well-crafted P3 proposal and consider its merits,” she added. “While the nature of the financing depends on the project, the upfront money comes from non-government entities who will receive a share of the revenue later on.”

In her construction law practice, Gentile helps clients with bidding preparations, understanding the requirements and looking “behind the documents to the actual regulations” so they can properly price a bid for the project.  “Once they submit a bid package, we can assist in a bid protest or defend against an award,” she said.  “During the course of the project, we assist with any negotiations with the agency and try to resolve any disputes,” she said. “Then, at the end of the project we can help them through any litigation problems.”

Gentile says there are no secrets to serving clients seeking government contracts. “It’s the same as with any type of practice,” she said. “You need to know the people involved at the agency, understand their goals and bring your knowledge and experience to bear for the client.   This is a field where building and maintaining relationships is essential.  You also need to know how an agency or municipality functions, who reports to whom and where the responsibilities lie. That way, you’re not stepping on someone’s toes when you submit a proposal.”

For example, many South Florida municipalities have incorporated energy-efficiency or other “green” provisions into their RFP requirements. “Understanding LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] standards and other sustainability trends is very important for anyone in construction practice today,” Gentile added. “You must be aware of these rules in order to submit bids and get the work.”

Gentile adds that government relations attorneys can also help clients by monitoring the decisions in state or federal courts that affect what government agencies can and cannot do. “Where there are ambiguities in the laws, rules and regulations, the courts help us decide how they will be interpreted,” she said. “It’s particularly important to stay on top of developments in construction law, because this is such a complex field.”

While some attorneys shy away from government work, Gentile says she enjoys the challenges of bringing the public and private sectors together. “I work with a lot of dedicated professionals in government who are dedicated to serving their communities,” she said. “They take their jobs seriously and carry a great deal of responsibility on their shoulders, and deserve to be treated with respect.”

Al Maloof: A Consultant’s Perspective

Al Maloof brings an insider’s perspective on government to his role as business consultant and lobbyist.  In the past 25 years, he has served on numerous official boards, committees and task forces, and was appointed chairman of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX) Operations Committee and a member of the Florida Transportation Plan Steering Committee, which advised on developing the state’s multimodal transportation plan.

“Governments focus on providing services to their communities and are not in the business of project development, design and operations,” said Maloof, managing partner of GJB Consulting LLC, an affiliate of Genovese Joblove & Battista P.A., a Miami-based law firm. “However, they are large holders of real estate and are often willing to partner with the private sector in infrastructure projects.”

Maloof, who is not a member of the Bar, assists law firms and their clients in identifying suitable land for construction, design-build and P3 development, as well as navigating the regulations, identifying financing mechanisms and designing a project. “We strive to provide a turnkey package for law firms so they can engage their clients effectively in this field,” he said. “These developments require long-term agreements that need to be structured in a way that provides the client with a fair and reasonable return on investment while protecting the client’s interests.”

In the P3 sector, Maloof is seeing an increasing number of unsolicited project proposals from domestic and international companies that are being offered to local governments. “There are companies doing amazing things in construction, design, engineering and technology around the world,” said Maloof, who is a member of the American Public Transportation Association and the Design Build Institute of America. “For example, there are innovative advances in automated water and wastewater processing that expand capacity without significantly increasing labor costs. That creates opportunities for South Florida governments to keep up with population growth in an efficient manner.”

Infrastructure projects from water treatment plants to roadways, airports and seaports also support the region’s commercial activities, Maloof added. “If you don’t have adequate water and sewer capacity, for instance, you can’t get a building permit. That keeps a company from doing business here, creating new jobs and increasing property tax revenues,” he said.

Looking ahead, Maloof sees a critical need for multimodal mass transportation development in South Florida. “We anticipate seeing dozens of new projects in the next five years,” he said. “Now is the time to start planning for those opportunities.” In Miami-Dade County, those potential corridors include the east-west S.R. 836 expressway, and the U.S. 1. busway stretching south to Homestead.  

Maloof said it’s always a good practice to engage professionals who focus on a certain field. “Advocates should stay within their areas of expertise and not try to be all things to all clients,” he said. “It’s not a good idea to take on a big assignment in an unfamiliar area, as that could result in a costly mistake for the client and compromise the integrity of your brand.”

Reflecting on the overall role of a government relations advocate, Maloof said, there are three keys to success. “Always be truthful, do your research and be respectful of the government staff,” he said. “Know the people at the agency, be prepared to answer their questions and be ready to follow up in a way that allows you to advance the cause of your client.”

South Florida Legal Guide 2016 Financial Edition

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