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Orlando law firm in eye of storm
When Orlando officials wanted to anchor the Home Depot Supply division headquarters in downtown, lawyers from the storied Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed law firm were across the table from them.
The area's biggest developers have sought the firm's guidance on some of Orlando's most high-profile projects, from The Vue to 55 West on the Esplanade. And the Orlando Magic, the city's only major professional team, has relied on the firm's legal advice for nearly two decades.
Founding partner John Lowndes has used legal and political clout to create the largest -- and one of the most influential -- firms based in Orlando. In the 37 years since its inception, the firm has become renowned for its generosity and the skills of its lawyers.
But that reputation has taken a hit because of the firm's role in the growing controversy surrounding Orlando anti-tax crusader Doug Guetzloe.
State investigators revealed last week that the law firm directed $471,250 in payments to Guetzloe's political-consulting firm at a time when Guetzloe was embroiled in controversies in cities where the firm was pushing major development projects for clients.
Then on Thursday, Orlando Magic Chief Operating Officer Alex Martins said firm partner Hal Kantor had arranged for $200,000 in payments to Guetzloe's business, Advantage Consultants, to quiet any opposition to the team's effort to build a new arena and other major downtown projects. And Friday, Magic officials confirmed they are considering whether to drop Kantor, the team's longtime attorney.
The Lowndes firm now finds itself facing unwanted scrutiny and on the defensive. It has hired Orlando civil-trial attorney David King to advise it on any potential legal fallout resulting from the firm's involvement with Guetzloe.
"I have been authorized to say I'm representing them and advising them," said King, who would not elaborate. The firm's top partners and office managers did not return repeated phone calls and e-mail requests seeking comment this week.
But in a "My Word" column to be published in Sunday's Orlando Sentinel, Kantor said because of his actions the paper has disparaged the firm's 350 attorneys and staff.
"Not one of those individuals, including my partners or the colleagues with whom I work most closely, had knowledge of, nor consented to, any actions that I have taken in regard to this matter," he wrote. "While I sincerely regret the harm to our firm, I assure you that each of the actions in the advocacy of client goals was done without violation of law and in concert with professional standards."
The Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office has charged Guetzloe with 14 counts of sending an illegal mailer critical of a Winter Park mayoral candidate who opposed a condo development pushed by Kantor. And though a state attorney's investigator attempted to link the law firm's payments to Guetzloe's political work, no one has accused the firm of wrongdoing or that those payments were connected to the mailer.
But friends, acquaintances and observers who follow the firm are flabbergasted by the recent revelations.
"It is eye raising, even for people accustomed to watching the dramas unfold," said Rick Foglesong, a Rollins College political-science professor. "Whether or not something illegal has occurred, it's clearly malodorous. And it violates the norms of local political culture."
Through Kantor, the firm's involvement with Guetzloe gave pause to veteran politicians.
"With this news, everybody has just tried to readjust their jaw and get them up off the ground," Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty said.
Pre-eminent land-use firm
With its stately headquarters on Lake Eola, Lowndes is known as the pre-eminent land-use law firm in Central Florida, employing at least 350 attorneys and support staffers. Its influential connections reach into the top levels of local government, electoral politics, the arts and philanthropy.
Some of its most prominent clients have heavy stakes in the three public projects recently approved by Crotty and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer: a $1 billion blueprint that includes a new performing arts center and arena, and Florida Citrus Bowl renovations.
The firm has many noted lawyers, ranging from its founder, Lowndes -- who was a member of a prominent local land-development and construction partnership for 40 years -- to former federal Judge John Reed and ex-Congressman Lou Frey.
Kantor, 61, is frequently seen in county and city chambers across Central Florida lobbying for malls and condo developers. In political races, Kantor and other lawyers in the firm regularly contribute to the campaigns of area politicians. Kantor also is on the board of advisers for the Hamilton Holt School at Rollins College.
Earlier this week, upon learning more about the firm's payments to Guetzloe's company, Winter Park Mayor David Strong suggested Kantor step down from two influential city boards he serves on.
Business experts say the firm needs to address the Guetzloe controversy publicly.
"I think it's going to have a tremendous negative impact," said Barry Render, a business professor at Rollins College. "This is not a project or activity that they want to be associated with in any way."
Render also urges the firm to establish a written policy on ethics, if it doesn't already have one. "I'd hire a public-relations firm on how to deal with this," he said.
Visionary began in 1969
Lowndes is described by friends as a visionary who prides himself on having amassed a pool of experienced legal talent.
"He has over the years -- since the '60s -- put together a group of very capable attorneys," said one-time partner and fellow Duke University alum Egerton van den Berg. "It's become one of the most highly thought of practices in Central Florida."
Lowndes, 75, began building his business in 1969 when he and three partners founded the firm to concentrate on the thriving land-development and realty markets.
While building his legal powerhouse, Lowndes also joined forces with home builders Lester Mandell and Lester Zimmerman and formed Greater Construction Corp. The Altamonte Springs-based company later became Greater Homes Inc. and was bought by Meritage Homes Inc. of Texas and Arizona last year.
Through the years, Lowndes would make sure that his firm and his other ventures shared their business success. Lowndes and his wife, Rita, are near legendary for their giving: The couple's Shakespeare Center houses three theaters in Loch Haven Park.
The entire firm shares that charitable ethos, said Margot Knight, president of United Arts of Central Florida. Kantor is the chairman of the United Arts' board -- one of many civic organizations and boards he serves on.
Knight said the firm, through workplace-giving campaigns, has been generous with the arts agency.
"They don't just write checks," Knight said. "They take living in this town seriously."
The firm's charitable community involvement flows from its many crowning achievements in the thriving land-development arena -- one of the main economic engines of the local economy.
Over time, it has helped pave the way for some of the most imposing building ventures in Central Florida and played a key role in helping to boost the growth industry.
"They're at the very top," said Orange Deputy County Administrator David Heath, Crotty's top growth regulator. Heath places Lowndes, Drosdick solidly ahead of two other major firms known locally for steering in new development, Akerman Senterfitt and Shutts & Bowen.
Kantor and other top development attorneys at the firm -- such as Miranda Fitzgerald and Nicholas Pope -- are among those Lowndes lured to the firm to raise its development profile. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Kantor came to be known for handling massive projects, dubbed developments of regional impact, or DRIs. Some insiders dubbed him the "Swami of DRIs."
During that time, Kantor also ensconced himself firmly among the region's political elite. Kantor and another founding father of Orlando's legal community, Charlie Gray, of Gray, Harris & Robinson, were two of former Orange County Chairwoman Linda Chapin's closest political confidants.
"Hal has been a personal friend and political ally of mine for the past 30 years," Chapin said. "And I've never known him to do anything like this. I can only assume he temporarily lost his mind."
Even today, Kantor's reach touches the most lucrative and high-profile clients in the community. Aside from Wal-Mart and the Magic, Kantor's clients have included such major housing and commercial projects as Kings Ridge in Clermont, Viera in Brevard County, the Oviedo Marketplace, Orlando Fashion Square and Ocoee's West Oaks Mall.
As attorney for the Home Depot company, Kantor was one of the key players behind the city of Orlando's incentive effort to lure the company's housing-supply-division headquarters permanently to downtown, Orange County's Heath said.
Those close to John Lowndes expect the firm to make changes.
The firm needs to examine itself and make changes if necessary, said van den Berg, Lowndes' college friend and former executive director of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.
"At the end of the day, are you still going to be attracting clients? That's what matters."