An Unpaid Tab In Florida

Few lawyers did more to help George W. Bush become president than Barry Richard. As Bush's quarterback in the Florida courts during last fall's bruising recount, the white-maned Tallahassee, Fla., litigator became a familiar figure to TV audiences. He got the GOP equivalent of rock-star treatment when he came to Washington last January for Bush's Inauguration. At one ball, recalls law partner Fred Baggett, a heavyset Texas woman lifted Richard off the floor and planted a big kiss on his cheek, exclaiming, "I love you for giving us our president!"

But Richard has discovered that the Bushies' gratitude has its limits. More than four months after the U.S. Supreme Court ended the 2000 election, he and his firm, Greenberg Traurig, are still owed more than $800,000 in legal fees. The firm, which sent 39 lawyers and 13 paralegals into court battles all over the state, is one of a dozen that have so far been stiffed. The estimated total tab: more than $2 million. The situation, NEWSWEEK has learned, has gotten increasingly sticky. While lawyers complain privately about foot dragging (Richard says he's not among them), Bush advisers are griping about "astronomical" bills--including one from a litigator who charged for more than 24 hours of work in a single day. "What you've got here is a bunch of rich lawyers bellyaching," says one former Bush campaign official. "Yet these guys got huge in-kind contributions to their reputations out of this."

The lawyers were supposed to get their money from the Bush Recount Committee, a fund-raising vehicle set up when the Florida fight began. A nebulous entity not legally required to disclose how it spent its money, the committee and its chief fund-raiser, Texas oilman (and now Commerce secretary) Don Evans, swiftly collected $8.3 million--more than twice the $3.9 million Al Gore's recount committee raised to pay its lawyers. To avoid charges that the recount was being bankrolled by special interests, the Bushies imposed a $5,000 cap on individual donations, a PR gesture they now regret. After paying off caterers, air charters and the army of GOP Hill types who came to Florida as "observers," the "kitty ran dry," says one source.

The Bush camp says it intends to pay up. But Ben Ginsberg, the former chief campaign counsel who has inherited the mess, hasn't yet figured out how. As for the law firms, they are taking pains not to alienate their deadbeat clients, for fear of damaging their burgeoning Washington lobbying practices. Greenberg Traurig now represents electric power companies, drug manufacturers and Internet gambling interests willing to pay big money for access to policymakers. Whether Richard and company collect or not, that $800,000 could end up being a smart investment.