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Auto Insurance Political Committee Flexes Muscle In Miami Judicial Races

By David Ovalle, The Miami Herald
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 19--An auto insurance company that regularly fights cases in court has created a political committee and spent nearly $227,000 in support of two Miami incumbent judicial candidates.

The large infusion of money from Citizens for Judicial Fairness, created by United Auto Insurance, appears to be a first in a local judicial election and has sparked a bitter election battle against the industry's perpetual courtroom foe: personal injury lawyers, who have now started a rival committee.

United Auto's efforts have also sparked unusual campaign drama -- with one candidate's own treasurer resigning in protest over the perception that a special interest group is spending exorbitantly before the Aug. 26 election.

"It's ground-breaking. It's never happened before," lawyer Hector Lombana said of United Auto's efforts. He cited the company's political committee as his reason for resigning as campaign treasurer for Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Rodney Smith.

"It's worrisome when you have an industry that is constantly in court exercising its financial muscle in the election for those who are going to judge it," Lombana said.

The committee is supporting Smith against upstart candidate Christian Carrazana. In the other race, the organization is backing Miami-Dade County Court Judge Nuria Saenz against Victoria Ferrer. Both opponents are personal injury lawyers, a group that frequently sues auto insurance companies on behalf of motorists and clinics.

Consultant Bob Levy, representing the campaigns of the sitting judges Smith and Saenz, says the committee "meets every standard of legality there is" and that nobody should question the ability of a judge to rule fairly in cases.

He points out that elected judges have long enjoyed legal donations from individual lawyers who appear before them.

"You have to fundamentally believe anyone who gets elected is going to be impartial, no matter who endorses them," Levy said.

Across Florida in recent years, donations to political committees supporting a cause or a campaign have skyrocketed -- the groups enjoy no limits on individual donations. Meanwhile, individual donations to specific candidates are capped at $1,000.

But political committees have not traditionally been major players in Miami-Dade judicial races.

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In the other hotly contested race -- an open seat pitting ex-Miami-Dade School Board member Renier Diaz de la Portilla against Miami Assistant City Attorney Veronica Diaz -- political committees on each side have sent out mailers.

But the United Auto committee, which has sent out mailers supporting Smith and Saenz, has drawn the most scrutiny. This is the first election in which the company has created a committee.

United Auto said Tuesday that it is also supporting a slew of other candidates, though no mailers have been sent yet on their behalf.

"These are candidates that we feel have been fair and unbiased," said Daniel Colon, a company executive who is the head of the committee. "These are candidates that have ruled both for us and against us. They are candidates that have earned the respect of their peers and colleagues."

The company has nearly 300 cases before Saenz, according to docket records requested by her opponents. In recent weeks, a slew of lawyers have asked that she recuse herself from cases involving United Auto.

That includes lawyer Alan Alvarez, who is suing the company on behalf of a motorist and a clinic. He noted the political committee's mailers and the company's banners "blowing in the wind" outside their North Miami-Dade headquarters.

"It is crystal clear ... the appearance of impropriety and undue influence on behalf of United Automobile Insurance Company upon Judge Sanez is overwhelming," Alvarez wrote in a court motion.

On the flip side, the personal injury lawyers have created Citizens for Judicial Excellence, which so far has raised $47,000. United Auto's Colon bristles at criticism from Carrazana and Lombana, who is also Ferrer's campaign treasurer.

"They, of course, have the right and ability to accept help from whomever they wish and run for office. Nevertheless, their criticism of our involvement is hypocritical," Colon said.

In the Smith race, he has broad support from Miami's legal establishment and has earned high marks from legal association polls. He has been a judge since 2008.

Smith, once a United Insurance lawyer, is currently a criminal circuit court judge who does not regularly handle insurance cases. But he does sit on appeals decisions involving county cases.

His opponent, Carrazana, says he ran against Smith because the judge sided with insurance companies.

"Miami Dade County voters just need to ask themselves whether they would feel comfortable appearing before a judge in a case where they have to sue their insurance company whose campaign was supported by the insurance industry's donation of hundreds of thousands of dollars," Carrazana said.

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