Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi talks with the Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about what she hopes to achieve in her role as the state’s chief law officer, her latest legislative priorities and whether she will seek another public office.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is passionate about making Florida a safer place. Since taking office in January 2011, her top priorities have included defending Florida’s constitutional rights against the federal health care law, strengthening penalties to stop pill mills, aggressively investigating mortgage fraud and Medicaid fraud and ensuring Florida is compensated for oil spill losses in the Gulf. She is also working to make Florida a zero-tolerance state for human trafficking.
Perhaps her greatest cause, and one for which she has fought tirelessly since day one, is the war on prescription drugs. “That became my priority and my obsession,” she says. “Seven Floridians on average died every day in our state when I first took office. Pill mills were rampant in our state. For those who don’t know, a pill mill is basically a storefront with little to no medical equipment and a doctor who patients rarely or never see, who sits back and signs prescription pads. Armed guards stand at the door because so much money flows in. Ninety-eight of the top 100 oxycodone dispensers in the United States lived in Florida. It was unreal. So many people were flying down from Kentucky and Ohio and other states to buy these powerful painkillers that we were nicknamed the ‘Oxy Express.’ I made it my obsession to stop it because I couldn’t live knowing that so many Floridians were overdosing every day. We worked very closely with the legislature, which had attempted for over six years to pass legislation without success. Now I am proud to say that we have some of the toughest prescription drug laws in the entire country.”
During AG Bondi’s tenure, there were 215 fewer oxycodone deaths in the first six months of 2012. This represents a 35 percent decline in overdose deaths when compared to the first six months of 2011.
Opportunist: How were you able to put a stop to these pill mills when your predecessors had been unsuccessful for so many years?
AG Bondi: It was a team effort. What makes Florida so special is that law enforcement at both the state and local levels work in conjunction with federal law enforcement officials. Gov. Rick Scott and I started a strike force, and we were able to shut down hundreds of pill mills and seize more than 850,000 pills. We are continuing to do everything within our power to combat this problem, and I continue to be a huge advocate of a prescription drug-monitoring program.
Opportunist: We understand that synthetic drugs are becoming a problem here in Florida because anyone—even children—can buy them at convenience stores and gas stations. What exactly are these substances and what do parents need to know?
AG Bondi: Every parent needs to see this and learn to recognize it. The substance looks harmless but it’s a dangerous hallucinogenic and a psychotic that can cause seizures—or even death—and it makes users so violent and angry that they do not even recognize their loved ones.
Opportunist: Is this the same substance believed to have caused that ‘cannibal attack’ on a homeless man in Miami last year?
AG Bondi: Yes, it is. We heard about a young girl who attacked her mother after using the substance, and someone else who actually tried to bite a radio out of a police car. It’s unreal. When this substance, also known as ‘bath salts,’ first hit we knew spring break was coming up and we feared we would have college kids in the Panhandle buying it legally and jumping out of high-rises. So we outlawed it and, thanks to our great law enforcement officers, we wiped it off the shelves.
Opportunist: What about the rest of the state?
AG Bondi: Two years ago it wasn’t a concern in Central Florida, but now it seems to be. Those who make these synthetics constantly alter their chemical makeup, so we are doing everything within our power to keep each and every possible formula on our list of controlled substances. We are also requiring gas stations and convenience stores to remove it from their shelves. Some of the street names are ‘Purple Haze,’ ‘Vanilla Sky’ and ‘Blue Silk,’ and they are targeting even younger children. I signed a second emergency order after seeing some of the latest packaging.
Opportunist: Can you describe the packaging?
AG Bondi: It comes in a paper packet similar to individual Kool-Aid packets. Some are actually branded ‘Scooby Snacks’ and feature the cartoon character Scooby Doo on the front. If you touch the package it feels like cotton candy. People from all walks of life are at risk. A representative recently came into my office and said ‘Look at this … my teenager came home with this stuff.’ He handed it to me, and do you know what it was? Synthetic LSD.
We heard about a 14-year-old girl—a straight-A student—who went inside a convenience store one morning when her mother stopped for gas and bought a packet of this substance because her friends told her it would help her study. She sprinkled it on her lunch at school that afternoon and went into convulsions and almost died.
We are asking people who come in contact with this substance or see it displayed at any convenience store to call law enforcement officials.
Opportunist: Where is it displayed? Is it in the candy aisle?
AG Bondi: No. It’s typically held behind the counter with the energy drinks.
I received word that people kept seeing all these teenagers who appeared to be under the influence, coming in and out of a particular convenience store in Sarasota. So I went in with my iPhone and started taking pictures of stuff behind the counter. The clerk asked me ‘Are you trying to decide what you want to buy?” and I said: ‘No, I’m trying to see what I need to have you arrested.’
Opportunist: Did you always aspire to run for public office?
AG Bondi: No. I never really planned to run, but I didn’t like the direction in which our state was going. I grew up in Tampa and was a prosecutor there for 18 years. In Hillsborough County, with about 1.3 million people, I knew I was making a difference and helping victims one-on-one every day. I wasn’t really sure I could make a difference on a bigger scale. I never once prayed to win; I only prayed for God to let the right thing happen.
Opportunist: After you took office did that belief change for you?
AG Bondi: Yes, it did. Once I took office I learned you can make a difference and help even more people and that’s what we’ve been attempting to do with our wars on human trafficking, drug trafficking and retail theft. I found that I was actually able to be a prosecutor on a much bigger scale and accomplish a lot more as attorney general.
Opportunist: What other accomplishments during your tenure are you proud of?
AG Bondi: During last session we worked on very hard to pass health legislation and enhanced penalties on human trafficking. Florida is now a zero-tolerance state for human-trafficking. In fact, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center ranked Florida 3rd in the number of calls to the national hotline. This is unacceptable, so we are continuing to find ways to eliminate human trafficking and to help end the sex and labor traffic in Florida. In May we will be announcing a new initiative.
Opportunist: What does the legislation entail and who will be affected?
AG Bondi: It creates enhanced penalties and authority for my statewide prosecutors to use in handling human trafficking. If someone is convicted he or she will become a sexual offender or a sexual predator. Something else I really like about the law is that it requires massage establishments to present valid photo ID upon request. Many of these young workers—mainly girls—are under age and that’s where they are being trafficked for domestic servitude as well as the sex trade.
Opportunist: It’s disturbing to know people are being trafficked here in Florida.
AG Bondi: Yes, and we are ranked third in the nation. It involves the kidnapping of very young children. It’s that ugly and it’s that real. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Taken” with Liam Neeson—it’s like that but the difference is there’s no dad coming to save the day. I had an opportunity in my role as attorney general to meet with some of these victims. We are also working to provide safe harbors for victims so they are protected. More importantly, we want to ensure that these children are being treated as victims and not criminals.
Opportunist: Let’s talk about the national mortgage settlement. How will it help Floridians?
AG Bondi: We reached a settlement with five of the largest mortgage service providers for $8.5 billion in overall relief. California was the hardest hit—and the only state that received more compensation than Florida—but their lawmakers used that money to help balance California’s tremendous budget deficit. Here in Florida, the funds are going to provide substantial relief to struggling homeowners.
Opportunist: What are you doing to hold the banks accountable to struggling homeowners?
AG Bondi: In February, a settlement monitor report revealed that more than 100,000 Floridians have benefited from relief so far. It’s very important to me that people who might be underwater but who are current on their mortgage and paying an interest rate of 5.25 percent or higher are entitled to relief under the settlement. Last month I sat down with Joseph Smith, the national Monitor in charge of overseeing the borrower relief and servicing standards, to discuss what was working and what wasn’t. We are doing everything we can to ensure that the needs of Florida homeowners are met. In fact, an additional $200 million is making its way through the legislative process right now. The senate president and speaker of the house have promised that money will go to affordable housing.
Opportunist: What other initiatives are you currently working on?
AG Bondi: A few weeks ago we announced a statewide initiative to raise awareness about babies being born exposed to prescription drugs. We launched a website, BornDrugFreeFL.com, and set up a hotline to educate expectant mothers about the importance of discussing any prescription drug use with their doctors. The use of prescription drugs during pregnancy is grossly unreported nationwide. Extremely conservative statistics show that 20 percent of babies in neonatal units are born exposed to prescription drugs. We went out to hospitals and visited these babies in the neonatal unit.
Opportunist: What did you learn from the visits?
AG Bondi: These babies are in incubators and have to be covered in blankets due to their sensitivity to light and sound. Instead of being fed milk, they are being given methadone.
We are going around the state educating law enforcement about this, and obstetricians and gynecologists are showing up to learn about it. We want to stop the problem before it gets worse. I recently stated that ‘we cannot let this become the next crack baby epidemic’ and someone said, ‘Pam, it’s already surpassed that.’ I have presented this initiative through the National Attorneys General Association and we have lawmakers in Washington, D.C., including U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, looking at it. We want Florida to become a model state for preventing Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.
Opportunist: What is Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome?
AG Bondi: Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS, is a group of problems that occur in a newborn exposed to addictive illegal or prescription drugs while in the womb. We are partnering with Drugfree.org—the organization that created the most memorable anti-drug commercial ever: ‘This is your brain. This is your brain on drug’—to, hopefully, put an end to this. We launched a marketing campaign and people will start seeing public service announcements and billboards all over the state that will say: ‘Your baby’s life shouldn’t begin with detox.’ We are bringing everyone to the table: The U.S. Surgeon General, the Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement, the Department of Children and Families, and even the Florida Medical Association, nurses associations and Healthy Start and the March of Dimes have joined in. It’s easy to come up with ideas and then sit the book on a shelf and forget about it, but we really strive to follow through with all of our initiatives.
Opportunist: We understand you recently filed a federal lawsuit against BP for the 2010 Gulf oil disaster.
AG Bondi: Yes, we filed a lawsuit against BP and Halliburton for nearly $6 billion. We all know there is still a large amount of oil at the bottom of the Gulf and we don’t know what kind of adverse effects that may cause in the future. We believe BP should be held accountable and compensate our state for lost revenue in the past as well as the future.
Opportunist: Is there ever a downside to being attorney general?
AG Bondi: The hardest part for me is being up here in Tallahassee during the week. I have 11 offices throughout the state, 1,200 employees and over 400 attorneys under my direction. When we are in session like we are now, it’s difficult to be away from all my friends and my family in Tampa. They are the most important things in my life.
Opportunist: Do you have any ambition to be governor of Florida one day?
AG Bondi: No. Before I ran for attorney general I made a promise to myself that I would not serve the people of Florida in one office while pursuing a higher office. I feel that if an elected official is looking ahead to another office they cannot do justice to their staff or to the office they hold. I am committed and focused on being attorney general right now and I plan to run for reelection when the time comes. If the people of the state will have me, I’d like very much to be here for six more years.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides Florida. Follow her on twitter at @les7989.
Florida Office of the Attorney General - http://myfloridalegal.com/