Their employee evaluations were consistently exemplary.
June "Clarkson is a dedicated and hard working attorney … and has embraced the division's mission to protect consumers," and Theresa "Edwards is a valued member of the team … demonstrating a strong work ethic and is always willing to assist others," their supervisors wrote.
They received a distinguished service award from former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum for their work targeting foreclosure fraud and "robo-signing." A PowerPoint presentation they produced on foreclosure fraud against homeowners became a model for attorneys general and judges around the country.
But just three months after stellar evaluations, Clarkson and Edwards were suddenly forced out of their jobs as assistant attorneys general May 20.
The forced resignations of the Fort Lauderdale-based attorneys, which only recently came to light, ignited accusations that Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi acted against them for political reasons. Some Democratic lfoegislators, public interest groups and foreclosure defense lawyers claim the two were doomed by their aggressive investigations of mortgage lenders and foreclosure firms, which revealed widespread irregularities.
They question whether there is a connection to the attorneys' related investigation of a foreclosure process server, Jacksonville-based Lender Processing Services, which donated more than $50,000 to Republican candidates in 2010, including $6,500 to Bondi. The company hired one of Bondi's deputy attorney generals, Joe Jacquot, as its senior vice president for government affairs, in mid-May.
Apparently buckling under pressure, Bondi last week told reporters that an outside inspector general would investigate the departure of Clarkson and Edwards. No further details were available at deadline.
Bondi's announcement follows calls for an investigation from state Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, and the public interest group Progress Florida. Soto sent a public records request last week seeking performance reviews for Clarkson and Edwards.
"I come from an area that has mortgage fraud victims by the thousands," Soto said. "As far as I know these ladies were heroes. They got plucked out while they were doing a good job for my constituents. I want some answers."
Additionally, a congressional committee reached out to Clarkson and Edwards. Leah Perry, chief oversight counsel for the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, scheduled a formal interview with the women last week.
The public interest group Progress Florida started a petition calling for an independent investigation into the lawyers' departure, and 5,500 people have already signed it, said executive director Mark Ferrulo.
"We can't say it's a fact that they were fired for political reasons," he said. "But it doesn't pass the smell test. These attorneys had just received glowing reviews. As soon as the new administration took over, the tables were turned on them. It just doesn't make sense. They did what they were supposed to do, which is fight for the rights of Floridians … not bend over backwards to appease powerful corporate interests."
In an interview Aug. 2, Bondi said she stands by the decision by her top deputies to dump the attorneys.
"I do have questions as to the lack of documentation," she said. "That is why I have requested an inspector general to review this and report back to us."
Bondi defended her record and said she was "highly offended" by allegations of collusion with banks and campaign contributors.
"I'm a 20-year prosecutor. I've dedicated my entire career to prosecuting people who commit crimes," she said. "The only directive I have ever given is to go after the bad boys with everything you've got."
Bondi spokeswoman Jennifer Meale said the attorneys' positive performance reviews were conducted by a previous bureau chief, Robert Julian, who has since been demoted. Meale produced a performance review of Julian that showed the office, while initiating some of the division's larger cases and recovering large settlements, had "several areas of concern," including "professionalism to opposing counsel," "judgment in discussing matters related to pending investigations to third parties, "marshalling of facts and evidence" and "proper case file organization."
Meale insisted the office is dedicated to fighting foreclosure fraud and now has eight attorneys and six investigators assigned to the task, double the previous staff. She did not produce the names of the attorneys by deadline.
Julian did not return calls for comment by deadline.
Seasoned trial attorneys who were in private practice for years, Clarkson and Edwards worked in the AG's Fort Lauderdale office for 20 months and three years, respectively. Based in the economic crimes division, they were flooded with complaints from homeowners who said they were improperly foreclosed upon, not served with foreclosure papers and victims of "robo-signing."
Clarkson and Edwards said they felt their work was appreciated under McCollum, who joined with 48 other state attorneys general last October to launch investigations into foreclosure and mortgage fraud. Clarkson and Edwards were behind investigations into major Florida foreclosure firms including the Law Offices of David J. Stern, Shapiro & Fishman, Florida Default Law Group, Law Offices of Marshall C. Watson and Ben-Ezra & Katz.
Stern, once the foreclosure king of Florida with 1,200 lawyers processing foreclosures, shut down his foreclosure practice after the investigation was announced and Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and major national lenders walked away as clients.
Under McCollum's encouragement, Clarkson, Edwards and fellow Assistant Attorney General Rene Harrod, former team manager of the dispute resolution team at Berger Singerman, drafted a 98-page PowerPoint presentation last December titled "Unfair, Deceptive and Unconscionable Acts in Foreclosure Cases."
Harrod is still with the attorney general's office. A call to her Fort Lauderdale office was referred to Bondi's spokeswoman in Tallahassee, who did not return the call.
The presentation demonstrated numerous examples of forgeries and deception in court documents filed on behalf of lenders. In the case of a woman named Linda Green, her name appears in court papers with the title of vice president at 14 companies and a variety of signatures. Scott Anderson, Tywanna Thomas, Jessica Ohde also show up in the presentation with an assortment of signatures.
Clarkson and Edwards shared their PowerPoint with Florida court clerks and others. They were inundated with calls from other AG's office and foreclosure defense attorneys asking permission to use parts of the presentation. Defense attorneys wanted to offer pages in their dismissal motions.
Defense lawyers throughout Florida said they felt encouraged by the work of Edwards and Clarkson and began referring clients to them.
"I would see press releases about the attorney general's office investigating various law firms, and I was very encouraged," said Matthew Weidner, a Tampa foreclosure defense lawyer who writes a widely followed foreclosure blog. "I understood that Clarkson and Edwards were primarily responsible for the investigations that were occurring."
But Weidner said he sensed their days were numbered once the PowerPoint presentation was released.
"I remember looking at the Los Angeles Times one day, and there was a picture of Pam Bondi next to a story about the presentation," Weidner said. "I knew they were sunk. That PowerPoint was produced under McCollum. Once Bondi came in, I knew they wanted to sweep this whole problem under the rug."
JOBS IN JEOPARDY
Clarkson and Edwards had no sense their jobs were in jeopardy — until late February when one of Bondi's chief deputies, economic crimes division chief Richard Lawson, showed up.
"He said, 'All I hear about in Tallahassee is about you and Theresa. I don't want to hear anything more about you and Theresa,' " Clarkson recalled being told.
According to Clarkson, Lawson said he had received complaints from opposing counsel about the two being "aggressive and unprofessional," particularly from lawyers for LPS, the process server. For three days, they said he grilled them about their cases with their office doors wide open.
"We were being chastised," Clarkson said. "It was belittling and degrading. We were absolutely stunned. Everyone in the office heard."
They began to feel micromanaged but were still shocked when they were called into Julian's office and told they were being fired. Shocked, they regained their composure enough to ask if they could resign and were told they could.
They said Julian told them he was ordered to fire them, and "it was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life."
"He said it was coming from the top, and there was nothing he could do about it," Clarkson said, adding Julian gave no reason for the firings.
That Sunday, when Clarkson and Edwards showed up to collect their belongings, the entire staff showed up to help in a show of solidarity.
While some are calling for Clarkson and Edwards to be reinstated, they say they're not interested.
They have started their own law firm, Edwards & Clarkson, in Hollywood and plan to represent homeowners in foreclosure defense. They say they've received calls from potential clients around the state.
"We're just trying to get our business off the ground and put this behind us," Clarkson said.