FKAA board counsel acknowledges ‘ethics conflict’

The attorney for the board of directors of the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority used to be the personal attorney for the board's chairman, who, until Thursday, was under investigation by the State Attorney's Office over his voter registration.

The relationship poses an ethics conflict for Robert Feldman, the FKAA's general counsel acknowledged himself this week in an e-mail seen by The Reporter/Keynoter.

As personal attorney to Chairman J. Robert Dean, Feldman was for years aware of at least some of the issues the State Attorney's Office was investigating. And he did not, as FKAA general counsel, bring them to the attention of the governor, who appoints utility's board members, or the other board members he serves.

The State Attorney’s Office closed its investigation Thursday, concluding Dean was likely breaking voting laws, but there is no proof he intended to, therefore, no charges were filed.

Feldman's name or that of his former firm of Feldman, Koenig, Highsmith & Van Loon, appears on several legal documents on behalf of Dean that list the address of Dean's home as being in the unincorporated subdivision of Key Haven.

Key Haven is outside Key West proper. If Dean, 85, really lives there, he cannot represent FKAA District 3, a position to which Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him in 2005.

He and his wife use the Key Haven house at 14 W. Cypress Terrace to receive their $50,000 annual property tax exemption, known as a homestead exemption. But Dean is registered to vote at 417 Bahama St. in Key West proper, in FKAA District 3. The Key Haven address is in District 1.

State Attorney Catherine Vogel's office began its investigation last week after Supervisor of Elections Joyce Griffin earlier this month showed her Dean's voter registration card has a different address than his homesteaded Key Haven house.

Dean's attorney, Bobby Highsmith, said Dean considers the Bahama Street house his full-time residence and that his client is doing nothing illegal by claiming a homestead exemption in Key Haven, yet voting in Key West and representing a city district for the FKAA.

Dean's colleague on the FKAA board, Cara Higgins, asked Feldman last week to give his legal opinion on Dean's eligibility in light of a slew of documents given to the press recently showing a years-long history of Dean rarely using his Key West address. Higgins wants Feldman to report his findings to the rest of the board during its Sept. 25 meeting, and to Gov. Rick Scott's office.

Feldman called The Florida Bar's ethics hotline this week and told the organization about his past role as Dean's attorney and his current job as FKAA general counsel.

"After this discussion, it was very apparent that I have an ethics conflict given a legal opinion based on the facts stated above," Feldman wrote.

Nevertheless, Feldman told The Reporter/Keynoter he will respond to Higgins' request.