ORLANDO, Fla. – Bright Horizons, one of the country’s largest child care providers, paid thousands of dollars to defend two former employees accused of molesting children at two of its Florida daycare facilities, court records show.
In both cases, court records indicate Bright Horizons executed payment agreements with West Palm Beach criminal defense lawyer Nellie King and attorney Thomas Pavlinic, a Maryland-based lawyer who specializes in sex crimes defense.
"Everyone accused of a crime is entitled to competent legal representation," King told News 6 in response to questions about the payment agreements. "Most large employers carry insurance for unforeseen events, including those that may require legal representation for employees."
In each of the cases, prosecutors filed court papers raising concerns about potential conflicts of interest resulting from the financial relationship between Bright Horizons and the criminal defense attorneys.
"The fee structure of (the former day care employee's) defense counsel creates an incentive to advise him to proceed to trial and not plead guilty," an assistant state attorney prosecuting one of the cases wrote.
[RELATED: DCF orders Bright Horizons to pay $700 after sex abuse allegations | Day care worker fired, director on leave after allegations of child sex abuse | Second lawsuit filed amid sexual abuse allegations at day care]
"Everyone wants a just outcome to this painful case, and assisting former employees in finding competent counsel to guide them through an unfamiliar process also assists justice," King said.
Pavlinic, her co-counsel in both criminal cases, did not respond to multiple emails from News 6 seeking comment.
Jayrico Hamilton, 26, recently agreed to plead guilty to three counts of lewd and lascivious conduct.
The former employee of the Bright Horizons facility in Orlando’s Baldwin Park neighborhood committed sex crimes against a 4-year-old boy, according to the Orlando Police Department.
In 2017, the state attorney in Broward County dropped all criminal charges against Olakunle Omomowo, 44, following accusations of prosecutorial misconduct.
Authorities arrested the former teacher more than three years earlier for allegedly molesting multiple girls at Discovery Preschool, a Bright Horizons facility in Coconut Creek.
After the state attorney in Broward County dropped the charges, Florida's governor signed an executive order transferring Omomowo's case to a neighboring state attorney's office for review and possible future prosecution.
Bright Horizons representatives did not respond to more than two dozen questions from News 6 about the company’s payment agreements with the criminal defense attorneys.
"As you’re aware, there is pending civil litigation related to this matter," an unnamed Bright Horizons spokesperson wrote in an email. "We feel we must respect the civil court judge assigned to this case who recently cautioned all parties as it relates to engaging with the media. For that reason we feel we cannot respond further."
Two weeks after Bright Horizons provided that statement to News 6, the company’s civil attorneys filed motions seeking formal gag orders in the cases, citing concerns of obtaining fair trials in Orange County. The judges have not yet issued rulings on the requests.
Shortly after police arrested Hamilton, a Bright Horizons spokesperson told News 6 the company fully supported the investigation.
"The well-being of the children in our care is our primary concern," former Bright Horizons communications director Bridget Perry said in that February 2018 statement. "We were deeply troubled to learn of this new development, and we are committed to supporting our families in any way we can."
The child care provider did not respond to multiple inquiries from News 6 seeking comment about Hamilton's decision last month to plead guilty to lesser sex crime charges.
“When the families of children who were allegedly sexually abused by their teachers at Bright Horizons learned that Bright Horizons was paying for the criminal defense, they felt revictimized,” attorney Jeff Herman said.
His law firm has represented several families in civil lawsuits against Bright Horizons.
“In my opinion, their behavior is repugnant and instead of protecting the accused pedophile, Bright Horizons should be engaged in efforts to help the victims,” Herman told News 6.
Payment agreement between Bright Horizons and attorneys detailed in court filing
While Omomowo was being criminally prosecuted in Broward County, parents of his alleged victims filed lawsuits against Bright Horizons.
As part of that civil litigation, the confidential payment agreement between the child care provider and Omomowo's criminal defense attorneys was made public in court filings.
"Bright Horizons has agreed to pay the attorneys for Mr. Omomowo's legal defense," states the July 2013 contract authored by Stephen Dreier, the company's current executive vice president.
King and Pavlinic signed the payment agreement in July 2013, approximately one month after Omomowo's arrest.
Under the agreement, King and Pavlinic could each bill Bright Horizons at an hourly rate of $350, but no more than $125,000 total for both attorneys, for any work prior to the case going to trial.
Bright Horizons also agreed to be responsible for third party costs such as airfare, rental cars, lodging, expert witnesses and court transcripts, the agreement stated.
"Bright Horizons understands that all decisions about handling of the case are exclusively between Mr. Omomowo and the attorneys. The attorneys will provide regular updates to Bright Horizons about the status of the case," according to the agreement.
The payment agreement also provided instructions on how the lawyers should handle inquiries from news organizations.
"The attorneys will use reasonable efforts to notify Bright Horizons about any media contact they receive about the case," the agreement noted. "The attorneys will not invoke Bright Horizons' or Discovery Preschool's name in any respect with the media without Bright Horizons' prior written approval."
The existence and terms of the payment agreement were to remain confidential unless the parties were required by law or the court to disclose it, the agreement stated.
That agreement became public record as part of the discovery process in the civil litigation, according to court records.
Broward prosecutors raise conflict concerns
Weeks after Broward County prosecutors learned about the financial arrangement between Bright Horizons and Omomowo’s attorneys, the state attorney’s office notified the judge about a potential conflict.
"The Payment Agreement indicates that Bright Horizons has the right to terminate the Payment Agreement, and therefore no longer pay for the Defendant's criminal defense, if the Defendant makes a confession to any of the allegations relating to students at the facility," Assistant State Attorney Stacie K. Wilensky wrote in a September 2016 court filing.
Prosecutors noted that they had previously relayed a plea offer to Omomowo that would have given him a sentence of probation instead of possible life in prison.
As part of that plea deal, Omomowo would have been required to make a statement regarding his molestation of the victims, according to the state’s filing.
"The Payment Agreement suggests that, if the Defendant had accepted the State's offer, Bright Horizons no longer would have paid for his defense," wrote the prosecutor.
The state attorney's office also highlighted another term of the agreement that granted the attorneys a combined fee of $6,000 per day should Omomowo's case advance to a jury trial.
"The potential financial benefit to the attorneys to proceed to trial could be seen as a disincentive to plea," the prosecutor said.
There is no record of Omomowo's attorneys filing court papers in response to the state’s conflict notice.
State drops charges against Omomowo
In March 2016, jurors in one of the civil cases found Bright Horizons "vicariously liable for the wrongful acts committed by their employee Olakunle Omomowo" and awarded $3 million to the alleged victim, court records show.
The parties later reached a confidential settlement for a different sum as Bright Horizons entered into separate settlements with the families of four other alleged victims, according to court records.
Ten months later, King and Pavlinic filed a motion seeking to dismiss the criminal case against their client due to alleged prosecutorial misconduct.
The attorneys noted that the former supervisor of the state attorney's Sex Crime Unit, Dennis Siegel, left the prosecutor’s office to work for the Herman Law Firm, which was representing the alleged victims' families in their lawsuits against Bright Horizons.
Omomowo's attorneys claimed Siegel remained in communication with his former colleagues and subordinates at the state attorney's office while working with civil attorney Jeff Herman.
"The State has actively sought to aid Herman Law in signing up clients who could point the accusatory finger at (Omomowo) so that Herman could then springboard the claims of these minors into multi-million dollar lawsuits," King and Pavlinic wrote in their 53-page filing.
The judge presiding over Omomowo's criminal case never had the opportunity to rule on the defense attorneys' motion to dismiss the case.
On the same day the defense accused prosecutors of misconduct, State Attorney Michael Satz announced his office was dropping all criminal charges against Omomowo.
"(Mr. Omomowo) spent 43 months in jail for something he did not do," King told News 6.
Two weeks after Omomowo was released from pretrial custody, former Gov. Rick Scott signed an executive order transferring the case from the state attorney's office in Broward County to the state attorney in Palm Beach County.
"To avoid a conflict of interest or any appearance of impropriety, (Satz) has voluntarily disqualified himself and has requested the executive assignment of another State Attorney with respect to the investigation and prosecution of this case and all related matters," Scott's executive order stated.
Gov. Ron DeSantis recently extended that case reassignment through January 2020.
A spokeperson for Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg said she could not comment on the active case, but acknowledged it had been transferred to his office for potential future prosecution.
Bright Horizons representatives did not respond to an inquiry from News 6 asking whether it would fund Omomowo's defense if Aronberg's office re-files criminal charges.
King and Pavlinic did not indicate whether they would represent Omomowo again should he find himself in need of a criminal defense attorney.
Hamilton discusses Bright Horizons payments in jail phone call
In June 2017, the first of two families filed civil lawsuits in Orange County against Bright Horizons and former employee Jayrico Hamilton, court records show.
The parents alleged that Hamilton had sexually abused their children at the company's Baldwin Park location.
In February 2018, following a monthslong investigation, Orlando police took Hamilton into custody on a warrant alleging sexual battery on a child.
After his arrest, Hamilton placed a phone call from the Orange County jail to his roommate.
During that conversation, which was recorded by jail personnel, Hamilton and his roommate discussed Bright Horizons paying for his criminal defense lawyers.
"I got some minor good news from your attorney,” the unidentified roommate said, apparently referring to the lawyer representing Hamilton in the civil cases. "I guess she's still trying to work some magic to get Bright Horizons' insurance to pay for it."
"They already did," Hamilton replied. "There's some guy named Tom Pavlinic, but he's up in Maryland. So we're just trying to get them to change it to somebody local, more preferably (Orlando criminal defense attorney) Lyle Mazin."
Mazin was never hired to represent Hamilton.
Instead, Omomowo's former attorneys, Pavlinic and King, filed notices in court announcing that they would be Hamilton's lawyers.
Mazin told News 6 he did not know why he was not chosen for the case.
News 6 submitted a question to Hamilton through his lawyer asking whether he was under the impression that Bright Horizons would pay for any attorney of his choosing.
King did not provide an answer to that inquiry on behalf of her client.
"Mr. Hamilton received zealous and aggressive representation from not one, but two, attorneys nationally recognized for their defense in these types of cases," King said.
Bright Horizons representatives did not respond to questions from News 6 inquiring whether the defense funding agreement was contingent on Hamilton using the same two attorneys the company had previously paid to represent Omomowo.
During the recorded phone call from jail, Hamilton and his former roommate celebrated the announcement that the child care provider would be helping to defend him against sex crime charges.
"That's good news they got somebody, because that's better than a public defender," the roommate said.
"Hell yeah," Hamilton replied. "If nothing else, I don't want no damn public defender. Not for no case like this."
"I think they probably, they finally figured that if this case goes well for you, it helps their case in the end," said the roommate.
"Yeah," replied Hamilton. "Plus I think everyone has come to realize exactly what is going on."
In an email to News 6, King indicated that her client is not the only beneficiary of funding from Bright Horizons.
"The same insurance coverage afforded to Mr. Hamilton is also providing legal representation for other former and present employees who were potential witnesses in the criminal proceeding," she said.
Prosecutors ask Hamilton to waive conflict of interest
Unlike the payment agreement in the Omomowo case, the contract between Bright Horizons and Hamilton's legal team has not been publicly released as part of a court case.
A clinical psychologist testified in January that Bright Horizons was paying him $350 an hour for his work on behalf of Hamilton's criminal defense. The same expert witness said he previously worked with the attorneys in the Omomowo case.
Earlier that month, prosecutors asked the judge to “engage in a colloquy” with Hamilton regarding any potential conflicts of interest that could arise from the payment agreement.
"The fee structure of his defense counsel creates an incentive to advise him to proceed to trial and not plead guilty," wrote Assistant State Attorney Jenny R. Rossman in a motion requesting Hamilton waive any conflict of interest claims.
The motion also suggested that Bright Horizons' liability in the civil suits hinges on Hamilton not pleading guilty in the criminal case.
"The State's interest in this matter is solely to ensure that the Defendant does not later claim ineffective assistance of counsel based on a conflict of interest," the prosecutor wrote.
King says it is false and irresponsible to infer that her client's defense was compromised.
"Mr. Hamilton was asked in court on two occasions whether he was satisfied with the counsel he selected and his response was, 'absolutely.' The State indicated there were no conflicts of interest at the same proceeding," King said.
According to the state's motion, the defense team brought in an outside attorney, Michael Snure, to advise Hamilton regarding any potential conflicts of interest related to the payment agreement.
"There was no conflict, only the potential of conflict. The conflict never arose," Snure later told News 6. "These are fine lawyers. They fulfilled their professional obligation to Mr. Hamilton."
Snure, who said he worked on the case pro bono and was not compensated by Bright Horizons, disputed suggestions that the payment agreement discouraged Hamilton from entering a plea or gave his attorneys a financial incentive to take the case to trial.
"Neither of those two things happened," Snure said. "The kid entered a plea."
Hamilton to plead guilty as civil cases continue
Under a plea deal signed last month, prosecutors agreed to drop the most serious charge against Hamilton, capital sexual battery, which would have carried a mandatory life prison sentence if he was convicted.
In exchange, Hamilton will plead guilty to three counts of lewd or lascivious conduct, court records show, a second-degree felony with a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.
Instead of recommending prison time, prosecutors agreed that Hamilton could serve 15 years of supervised probation as a sex offender while receiving credit for the year he spent incarcerated in the Orange County jail while awaiting trial.
The state attorney's office also agreed not to file criminal charges against Hamilton in connection with undisclosed allegations against him from 2017.
A judge will formally sentence Hamilton May 7, court records show.
"The strength of the defense efforts is reflected in the disposition of the case to probation," King said.
The first of two civil cases against Hamilton and Bright Horizons is scheduled for a jury trial in September.