Pam Bondi's Star Rises by Doing GOP's Dirty Work
Illustration by Allen Douglas
TV cameras encircled Pam Bondi outside Bennett's Fresh Roast, a quaint shop a block from the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers, one more stop on a statewide tour in the fall of 2014 with Gov. Rick Scott. Bondi flashed her trademark high-wattage grin, shook her blond locks into place, and once again explained why she was going to challenge gay Floridians' right to get married.
"When I was sworn in as attorney general, I put my hand on the Bible, raised the other hand, and I swore to uphold the constitution of the State of Florida," Bondi said, her voice rising with a flourish.
A small crowd of the local GOP faithful nodded along as she spoke to the camera. "There are great people on both sides of this issue," she insisted, "and all we want is finality for everyone."
More than a year later — with gay marriage now the law of the land — it's clear that Bondi wasted her time and taxpayers' cash polishing her conservative bona fides on fights like this. As attorney general, her failed political causes have mounted: taking a gay marriage challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court, fighting tooth and nail against medical marijuana and Obamacare, and even punting on taking on the banks responsible for Florida's historic foreclosure crisis.
Yet as Bondi enters the final two years of her term, those kinds of quixotic battles have made her a national darling of conservatives. She scans as a smart, sane version of Sarah Palin, a savvy political brawler who could crawl out from under the scary shadow of Scott and become a future GOP power player.
"She is the most substantive attorney general we have had in recent memory," says state Rep. Dana Young, a Republican lawmaker from Tampa.
To her critics, though, Bondi is a party pawn intent on carrying out partisan agendas through selective legal enforcement. Since taking office in 2010, Bondi's been accused of numerous lapses, from carrying the political water of major backers to supporting big businesses under state investigation. Freedom of Information Act requests from New Times, meanwhile, raise new questions about whether — like Scott — she's broken Sunshine Law by avoiding her public email account.
"You get the sense that rather than being the watchdog for the state, she is a mouthpiece for national political organizations," says state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Democrat from Miami. "She's got her eye on the future, and to do that, she has to be part of that party system. And it has its own issues, which she takes on in accordance with the Republican Party. It points to this straight line to fundraising and partisan politics at the national level."
Bondi refused an interview for this article, but over the past month, New Times has reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, watched hours of interview and speech footage, and interviewed Bondi's political friends and foes.
One thing is certain: Bondi has spent serious time branding herself for whatever comes next: governor, senator, U.S. attorney general? Bondi insists she has no sights on office when her term ends in 2018, but it seems inevitable that this telegenic power player will not fade away quietly.
The Bondi family house on Bannockburn Avenue is a modest sprawler facing the greens of the Temple Terrace Golf and Country Club. It's on a golf course because that's essentially what Temple Terrace is — the Tampa suburb was one of the first in the United States developed as a golfing community.
The light-yellow house has three bedrooms and five baths inside. The front is a single story, and the back is two, and the fenced pool was added in 1982, when Bondi was a junior in high school.
It's the perfect place for raising three kids in a setting both sanitized and generic. The Bondi home was also a breeding ground for what would become Pam's innate ability to charm, while her relatives offered a crash course in how to rise to the top as a pragmatic politician.
When Bondi was born in 1965, her hometown had, at most, a murder a year, which tended to go down on the town's slightly shady western boundary. The town's claim to fame was as onetime home to Elvis Presley's raconteur manager, Tom Parker, who spent a few years serving as the Temple Terrace dogcatcher in the '40s.
Her dad, Joseph Bondi, grew up in Tampa, graduated from Hillsborough High School, served in the Navy, copped a doctorate degree at the University of Florida, and married his wife Patsy, a fledgling grade school teacher, in 1960. Pretty soon, the kids came along. Pam was the first, followed by Beth and Brad.
Politics defined the Bondis; Joe's older cousin Bob graduated ahead of him by two years at Hillsborough High and ended up first on the county school board and then on the county commission. Bob Bondi even ran for mayor of Tampa in 1979 against Bob Martinez, the future governor of Florida, who at the time was a local restaurateur.
"Bob [Bondi] was a traditional Hillsborough politician," says J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, who worked for Martinez on the campaign and later served as his chief of staff in the statehouse. "He was a ward healer and not particularly outspoken. And as an incumbent county commissioner, he was also the hands-on favorite to win, so Martinez scored an upset."
Pam Bondi hugs Connie Freeman after securing a life sentence for the woman who murdered Freeman's husband. Bondi made her name trying similar murder cases.
Photo by St. Petersburg Times/ZUMA Press/Newscom
Joe, meanwhile, moved up from the city council to become mayor of Temple Terrace. But his political ambitions ended when his term ran out in 1978. His professorship in education at the University of South Florida, civic obligations, and fatherly duties kept him busy. Bondi eventually wrote 25 books, including The Essential Middle School, which helped shaped school plans in big districts from Dallas to St. Louis to Miami.
Like her father and uncle, Pam Bondi was an overachiever right out of the gate. "She would come in prepared and sit at the front of the class," says Diana Anastasi, Bondi's first-grade teacher at Temple Terrace Elementary. "And she hardly took her eyes off of me."
Bondi was "a little bashful" but managed to make a lot of friends. She was always on time with her work and also knew how to curry favor. "Yes, she brought in an apple for the teacher," Anastasi says.
A few years ago, Anastasi ran into Patsy Bondi at the local Publix. The two have known each other for decades, as both teaching colleagues and friends. "I always follow what Pam does," Anastasi told her as the two caught up on family comings and goings.
A couple of weeks later, Anastasi received in the mail a signed 8x10 photo of the attorney general. "To my best teacher, love you always, Pam."
"And that was a couple of years before she even ran for reelection," Anastasi says.
The Bondi kids were all high achievers. Brad would become a lawyer and Beth a teacher. Pam always knew she wanted to go to college and be something. Or, maybe just as important, somebody.
At C. Leon King High School, she stood out with cascades of blond hair that made Farrah Fawcett look like a skinhead. Her junior class picture shows layer upon feathered layer of well-tended tendrils, her pretty face peeking out, battling for attention with the mane.
Bondi was quiet but also an enthusiastic joiner. She won a seat on the student council; was a member of the Continental Club, which explored other cultures through food and celebrations; and took part in Kiwanette, a batch of students who put on fundraisers and events to benefit the needy. As a junior, she was one of the school's Learned Lions, a group that required a 3.66 grade point average. In her senior year, she was a member of the homecoming court.
She left King and Temple Terrace in fall 1983 for Gainesville and the University of Florida. She didn't know what she wanted to do for the rest of her life, but on the refrigerator in her Gainesville apartment was a plaque with a Gandhi creed: "Be the change you wish to see in the world."
Like her father, Bondi was a registered Democrat in a state that like so many in the South would soon tilt to the right in the Reagan era. The truth is, she had a hard time ginning up the effort to get to the polls at all. She failed to vote in the Democratic primaries in 1984, 1986, 1988, or 1992, records show.
After earning her bachelor's degree in criminal justice, Bondi enrolled at Stetson Law School. By the time she graduated in 1990, she already had some jury trials under her belt thanks to a Florida law that allows legal interns to work cases. In one trial, a bad-check rap ended up in probation. In another, an unlicensed electrical contractor who called himself a "jailhouse lawyer" did too. It was lightweight stuff but also courtroom experience most would kill for.
Still, Bondi was directionless at the time. "When I was in college, I didn't know what I wanted to do," Bondi told a group of University of Florida students in 2014. "I was a criminology major. But I wasn't even sure I wanted to practice law."
The lost college kid relied on her well-connected dad for guidance and even marching orders. "My dad conspired with Bill James, who was the state attorney at the time, because my dad was so worried I didn't want to practice law," Bondi told the UF students, describing how she got the internship.
In an even more telling anecdote, Bondi admitted, "I don't think I've ever made a résumé in my life."
Bondi was never among the people who toiled hard polishing résumés that would land them a job — she knew a well-placed phone call from the state attorney would land her in the right place. By 1990, Bondi was ready to move up, and she had plenty of people to hold that ladder for her.
The first time Adam Goodman met Pam Bondi, she insisted on correcting him.
The setting was an empty Hillsborough County courtroom. The occasion was a shoot for a campaign commercial for Mark Ober, the Republican candidate for state attorney. The year was 2000. And Bondi's problem was that Goodman kept using the word "prison" rather than "jail."
In those days, Goodman was a Republican kingmaker with a long history of running winning campaigns, including New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's reelection in 1997. So he couldn't help but wonder about this young, blond, longtime Democrat now working to help a fellow member of the GOP, a party she officially switched to later that year.
"I'm thinking, 'Who is this person who keeps getting into my lines?' " Goodman recalls.
He eventually gave in and changed the line in the ad — and he never forgot Pam Bondi. "And of course, she was right," Goodman says about the prison-versus-jail debate, noting that Ober went on to win the election.
It was a fortuitous meeting for the pair, as Goodman would soon become the young attorney's political Svengali; she assumed the role of leader of an energized team running her first successful campaign, launching her onto a stratospheric path up the GOP. Along the way, Bondi moved steadily to the right — more out of political pragmatism than ideological change — all while staking out a reputation as a tough prosecutor who embraced the death penalty.
Bondi's career at the State Attorney's Office in Hillsborough County started slowly. Her first murder case came along in 1998, when Adam William Davis and Jon Whispel were popped for killing the 49-year-old mother of a girl Davis was hanging out with. Bondi was part of a team that got a death sentence for Davis; Whispel got 25 years instead of death for turning state's evidence.
Her next turn at a murder case came in 2000, when a stockbroker turned housewife named Katherine Freeman shot to death her ex-husband in a Tampa suburb. Before Bondi could get a conviction, Freeman pleaded out and got life. After the sentencing, Bondi solemnly hugged the victim's current wife, Connie Freeman, as cameras popped around her.
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A year later, she prosecuted William Kenneth Taylor, a criminal with a long rap sheet, charged with shooting to death a former female high school classmate. Taylor got death in 2004. Once more, Bondi had delivered the ultimate penalty.
But Bondi's increasingly public role had its speed bumps as well. In December 2000, she had to defend a decision to decline charges against Tampa's solid-waste director, Wayne Brookins, when he fled the scene after hitting and killing a pedestrian, 65-year-old Lydia Perez, while driving a city car.
Bondi at the time was spokeswoman for the State Attorney's Office. She faced TV cameras and announced that Brookins would not be charged, even though the cops were ready to pursue the case. "He wasn't speeding, there was no alcohol involved, he was at no fault in the accident," Bondi told incredulous reporters. The incident was a harbinger of future cases — Bondi has often been accused of toeing the line to protect the powerful and connected.
But in that December of 2000, she was a 35-year-old assistant prosecutor with a good rapport with the media and a sunny future. Indeed, the next year, Bondi was offered a role as the lead in a reality-based television show that would have followed her adventures as a prosecutor. She declined the offer. But her star was clearly on the rise.
Bondi's personal life was never quite as smooth as her public appearances, though. She'd first wed a law school classmate named Garret Barnes in 1990, but that marriage lasted just 22 months, ending in June 1992.
In early 1997, Bondi married Scott Fitzgerald, a man three years her junior. The couple purchased a 3,000-square-foot home in South Tampa, a wood-frame Craftsman on Morrison Avenue with four bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths, and a small paver-brick circular driveway. But that marriage too ended in divorce five years later. By 2003, the house was sold and Bondi was ensconced in her new place, a two-bedroom house on a well-trafficked corner lot a half-mile away.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush celebrates after Bondi crushed a better-funded Democratic opponent in the attorney general race.
Photo by James Borchuck/ZUMA Press/Newscom
Amid that turmoil, her career flourished. She began hitting Fox News as a regular legal analyst, frequently carrying a law-and-order line on Hannity & Colmes. She also made appearances on Joe Scarborough's MSNBC show and with Dan Abrams on NBC, often as the conservative voice. In the courtroom, she worked on a team prosecuting high-profile crimes, including a host of first-degree murder cases and two capital cases.
Bondi's big moment came in 2009, when Goodman surveyed the Republican field for the upcoming attorney general election. His mind flashed back to the camera-friendly , ambitious prosecutor who'd so struck him while filming a commercial.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, what about Pam Bondi? She's photogenic; she thinks on her feet. She would be great,' " Goodman recalls.
He called her on a Saturday in the early spring while he was in Baltimore visiting his father, stopping at the side of the road, he was so excited. What was supposed to be a five-minute call went an hour.
"I'm talking to her, and it's cold out, and so I had to keep the car running, and we kept talking, and I'm starting to get lightheaded from running the car with the windows up," he says. "But she had so many questions about what it entailed."
In December 2009, he had his answer: Bondi would run for elected office, the first time since her high school days on the student council. "No one thought I was going to do it, and neither did I until 7 a.m. that morning," Bondi later said.
Bondi won a close primary and took on Democratic state senator and former federal prosecutor Dan Gelber, running consistently ahead in polls as Election Day neared. On the trail and on the airwaves, she touted her Florida roots and record as a prosecutor. "I'm proud to say I have two people on Florida's death row who deserve to be there," she said at one forum.
Despite getting outraised by Gelber by more than half a million dollars, Bondi won big in November 2010, nabbing 55 percent and 2.8 million votes. She was part of a GOP Cabinet sweep that included Scott, Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.
A new conservative wave had taken the top reins of Tallahassee — and Bondi, just a decade removed from being registered as a Democrat, was leading the charge.
There was a fine, icy mist in the air over Washington when Pam Bondi touched down in the nation's capital. It was a far cry from her balmy native Florida, but Bondi knew she'd find a warm welcome inside the Georgetown Ritz-Carlton.
That day in February 2014, she was a featured speaker at a briefing sponsored by the Dickstein Shapiro law firm, where she was lobbed softball questions in front of 40 lawyers, lobbyists, and Republican power brokers.
Making an appearance was the least Bondi could do for Dickstein Shapiro, which had dropped $650,000 in campaign cash her way since 2010. From Dickstein's gig, Bondi rushed four miles to a fundraiser at the corporate offices of the Home Depot, where a "suggested" minimum contribution for attendees was $3,000. Before heading home to Florida the next day, Bondi made her way to the winter meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General before attending another Dickstein fundraising dinner.
The trip may not have had much to do with helping Florida taxpayers, but at least the Republican Attorneys General Association picked up the $1,576 tab for lodging and food. (It's not clear who paid Bondi's airfare.)
What's more concerning for taxpayers, though, is that during those two days in Washington, Bondi claims to have fired off just one single email from her personal address, email@example.com. And according to information New Times gathered in Freedom of Information Act requests, Bondi never once used the email address she gives to the public, firstname.lastname@example.org. That's the email on her Florida Bar Association page. It is also the email she provides to the court.
That public email blackout is especially concerning, because Bondi is part of the same administration that cost taxpayers $700,000 in legal fees last year when Gov. Rick Scott and his staff dodged state open-records laws with unlisted email accounts. Bondi's office paid $75,000 in that settlement, although the AG claims she "did nothing wrong."
Transparency experts say they wouldn't be surprised if Bondi was also breaking Sunshine Law. "The Bondi/Scott team is not as transparent as previous administrations," says David Snyder, a Tampa lawyer who handles open-records cases. "She's a different sort of politician... who thinks there is this top group that handles things and says, 'We know best.' "
A spokesperson for Bondi declined to comment on the lack of emails from her public accounts.
If Bondi is gaming the system on her email accounts, it wouldn't be her first misstep as attorney general. From gay marriage to medical weed, critics say Bondi has carried water for GOP pet causes; more seriously, she's whacked opponents in her office and backed firms under investigation.
Bondi was sworn in on January 4, 2011, walking to the podium at the base of the State Capitol steps holding hands with Tampa ophthalmologist Greg Henderson, then her fiancé. (The pair was supposed to get married the next year at a gala wedding in Grand Cayman; Bondi mysteriously called it off at the last minute.)
By May, she'd made her first major move — and set a contentious tone for her time in office. She quickly fired two attorneys who had been investigating "robo signing," the mass, rapid processing of home foreclosures by attorneys without reading or verifying that the foreclosure documents were valid or correct. Theresa Edwards and June Clarkson, low-level state attorneys in Fort Lauderdale, had been probing Lender Processing Service, a firm that would eventually have to cough up $120 million to 45 states. Florida had been at the front of that investigation — until Bondi took office.
"They stopped investigating," Clarkson says. "After what happened to us, anyone working on that case was petrified, as you can imagine. Even though Pam Bondi was aware that we had opened the first investigation in the U.S., she was one of the last to get into it. They had all this evidence we had acquired, but they closed us down."
Adds Edwards: "Eventually almost all the AGs filed an action against most lenders. What does that tell you?"
So why did Bondi shut down the case? It wasn't directly about money: LPS-related entities gave a meager $2,000 to Bondi in her first campaign and $36,500 more to the state GOP.
More broadly, though, the case might have gone against Bondi — and her boss, Gov. Scott's — relentlessly pro-business message. Throughout her term, Bondi has been slow to take on powerful, big-business banks and lenders.
That tendency was reinforced in 2012, when Bondi was one of seven attorneys general who resisted a measure amid the foreclosure crisis to force banks to spend up to $25 million on loan modifications. Her reason? That some homeowners might stop paying their debt in order to get the reduction. But for banks, it would have been another gift from the AG. Under heavy criticism, Bondi eventually relented and agreed to the deal.
Pam Bondi, shown in 2009, is a telegenic speaker who has become a regular fixture on Fox News.
Photo by Deans/ZUMA Press/Newscom
Bondi quickly showed she had no qualms about using her office to back national issues important to the GOP. In 2011, she became one of the leading voices among a coalition of state AGs trying to tear down Obamacare, even penning a Wall Street Journal editorial warning that "no legislation in our history alters the balance of power between Washington and the states so much." The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, keeping Obamacare intact the next year and handing Bondi's coalition a stinging defeat. Bondi waded right back into the fire in 2012, signing onto a brief supporting Arizona's laws requiring cops to check suspects' immigration status. This time, the court delivered a split decision, leaving parts of Arizona's law intact.
Her Alamo has been the gay marriage issue. Voters had enshrined a gay-marriage ban into the state constitution in 2008. But by 2014, such bans were falling by the wayside nationwide. In July, the tide hit Miami when a circuit court judge ruled that the state's ban was unconstitutional; a similar ruling came in Monroe County weeks later. And one month later, a U.S. district court judge invalidated the law for the whole state.
Bondi responded by going on the legal warpath. She first appealed the state court decisions and then the federal ruling, steadfastly insisting she was defending the will of the voters. Critics, including the Tampa Bay Times, noted that 60 gay-marriage rulings had been heard in 2014 and that gay-marriage backers had won all but four.
But the AG was firm. And she insisted her concerns were simply law and order — not any personal bias against LGBT rights. "Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court, they need to make the decision," she told reporters in Fort Myers. "We need finality on this."
A month later, in Naples, Bondi said the same thing. "Six years ago, by over 60 percent, our voters put this into our constitution. It is my job to defend it."
Indeed, Bondi doesn't hail from the Bible-thumping wing of her party. She lived in an upscale, LGBT-friendly part of Tampa. And notably, even as gay-marriage backers lambasted Bondi, none could find any instance in which she said she personally opposed same-sex marriage. In fact, the issue may be the ultimate example of Bondi's bending to the GOP's political demands — whether or not she actually agrees.
Her fight became a moot point six months later, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that gay-marriage bans are unconstitutional. Still, Bondi got in one last dig — she filed a motion trying to prevent lawyers defending the right to same-sex marriage from collecting legal fees from Florida that could reach $700,000.
Gay marriage isn't Bondi's only dubious legal quest as AG. By August 2013, medical marijuana backers had gathered more than 100,000 signatures to get a measure on the ballot. But Bondi immediately announced she'd fight the measure, which was already polling at more than 80 percent support.
Emails sent to Bondi at the time show impassioned pleas not to railroad the measure.
"Pam please don't make this medical marijuana issue a Republican vs. Democrat issue," read one such missive. "I am a proud died in the wool Reagan conservative... I also suffer from MS and have had 2 strokes. I was against this bill until I saw what Sanje Gupta had to say about it curing cancers and aiding children. He changed his position based on that alone and I have too."
Bondi was unmoved. She asked the state Supreme Court to ax the measure, calling it misleading. The court didn't buy it, though, voting 4-3 in January 2014 to send the proposal to voters. Bondi still didn't give up, repeatedly urging voters to reject it. "I hope that all the doctors that are prescribing this marijuana are ethical," she told reporters. "I pray they're ethical. But look what we learned with the pill mills."
The measure did ultimately fail, nabbing 57 percent of the vote — just short of the required 60 percent supermajority.
Bondi has been just as strident in defending the death penalty in a state that is second to California in the number of people on death row. Since she took office, 61 of the state's 390 death-row inmates have been sentenced. But the same court she so passionately asked to stand pat on gay marriage, the U.S. Supreme Court, this month ruled that the state's death penalty is unconstitutional, as it gives judges too much power in sentencing.
Should Bondi, the state's watchdog and a devout constitutionalist, have caught this earlier? Her response to the SCOTUS decision was a vow to review each death sentence on a "case-by-case basis."
The more likely scenario: Hundreds of inmates will need to be resentenced.
It's the first Wednesday in December, and in the span of three weeks, ISIS has attacked Paris and two homegrown terrorists have killed 14 people at a San Bernardino social services facility.
And Pam Bondi is on it. She's on Fox News, a familiar place, where she's made dozens of appearances since 2005. She's again on Sean Hannity's show, talking terrorism on December 3, just after Donald Trump has his say on the situation. "Everything points to terrorism," Bondi says confidently. "Of course it points to terrorism."
She looks concerned, attuned. And the camera loves her. The next night, she's on Fox again talking heroin addiction. If that's not enough, viewers catch her a week later with Bob Massi, who does a weekend real estate show, talking about real estate scams.
Every week, Bondi's office releases a list of her accomplishments, focusing on the boss and how she makes Florida a better place. She's smoothing her place in a political cabal led by Gov. Scott that promotes good government in a chamber of commerce fashion. Bondi has indeed shuttered pill mills, created a statewide effort to combat human trafficking, and extracted the state a share of money from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
But just earlier this month, she fell into a trap that belied her sometimes-pathological insistence on carrying the party line.
The Palm Beach Post uncovered a March 2014 letter from Bondi to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in which she pleaded on behalf of a company called Millennium Laboratories, asking the feds to continue funding for drug testing.
Yet, as the Post revealed, at the same time she wrote the letter, her office was investigating Millennium for bilking the federal program with unnecessary testing. Bondi claimed she was unaware of the investigation when she wrote the letter.
Regardless, Bondi is still a significant player in the political arena. Experts say she's a strong bet to run for governor or even U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's seat in 2018.
"She's a high achiever, and she's got a platform to work from for the next two years for whatever she wants to do," said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida.
Adds Carol Weissert, a political scientist at Florida State University: "She has a political career, if that's what she wants. She's an excellent retail politician."
Bondi herself insists she will not run for a higher office when her time as AG is done.
But that vow now appears hasty. She's spent almost 15 years on the national stage via television appearances on conservative TV and has taken on a wider profile by fighting the Affordable Care Act, battling medical marijuana, and deferring to the feds on gay marriage. She knows how to campaign and raise funds.
"She's politically savvy, and she has some natural gravitas as well," Smith says. "People who underestimate Pam Bondi will be surprised."