By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
The Broward Sheriff’s Office is making a bizarre bid to squelch a disturbing lawsuit brought against it by a former employee – it wants to buy all rights to the lawsuit from a bankruptcy court trustee.
The lawsuit, filed in 2015 by former BSO Human Resources Information Manager Jennifer Bakowski, includes a host of allegations against BSO including false imprisonment, defamation and malicious prosecution.
In federal bankruptcy court Thursday, a lawyer for BSO asked the court to deny the trustee’s plan to allow Bakowski to buy back her own lawsuit at a cost of about $86,000. Instead, he said, the sheriff should be allowed to buy it for $161,000 in public dollars.
“If we can acquire the case, we can dismiss the case,” said Fort Lauderdale attorney Thomas M. Messana.
“It was his client’s misdeeds that caused the bankruptcy,” countered the trustee’s lawyer, Jason S. Rigoli of Boca Raton. Rigoli argued BSO had no standing to object to the trustee’s proposal to sell the lawsuit back to Bakowski, noting her offer was sufficient to pay off all creditors and attorneys’ fees in full with interest.
“They’re trying to cover up and cap the amount of their liability,” Miami attorney Christian Olson told U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Raymond B. Ray on behalf of Bakowski.
Ray deferred a ruling, and asked both sides to submit final written arguments by March 31. It was unclear whether another hearing on the matter would be held.
Bankruptcy trustee Marc P. Barmat obtained opinions from independent trial attorneys that valued the case as being worth much as $1.2 million, according to attorneys for Bakowski.
The strange case arose out of a reopened bankruptcy court case that Bakowski and her husband, Robert, originally filed in 2013 in the wake of her December 2012 firing by Sheriff Scott Israel.
Bakowski was a 13-year employee with an otherwise spotless record when two sheriffs – Al Lamberti and Israel, his successor – publicly accused her of embezzling approximately $1 million. A year later, however, BSO detectives and the State Attorney’s Office cleared Bakowski of wrongdoing after determining, among other things, that in fact no money was missing, court records say.
While under investigation, Bakowski and her husband filed for bankruptcy in Fort Lauderdale as their debts piled up following the loss of what was said in court to be a “six-figure salary.” The court discharged the couple’s debts in August 2013.
More than a year later, on Jan. 31, 2015, Bakowski sued Sheriff Israel and several underlings in Broward Circuit Court alleging a variety of misconduct by BSO arising from her dismissal.
In June 2016, an attorney for BSO contacted the trustee to tell him about the lawsuit, alleging it should have been included in the bankruptcy estate because the claims arose well before the underlying damages case was filed in Broward Circuit Court. The trustee soon moved to reopen the Bakowskis’ bankruptcy case and, as required by law, gave notice to the couple’s debtors to refile any claims.
The trustee and the Bakowskis later agreed to avoid the costs of further litigating whether all the alleged causes of action in the state complaint against BSO are property of the estate. They agreed to give all rights and title to the suit to the trustee.
The trustee then proposed to sell to Jennifer Bakowski those bankruptcy rights. After Thursday’s hearing, Bakowski said she would fund the rights purchase with money she recently inherited from her late mother.
The sale would have gone through, but BSO objected. Specifically, BSO’s lawyers complained in court papers, “The sale ‘process’ was opaque, was not conducted at arms length, and favors the debtor over the estate and its creditors.”
“We’re not a disgruntled bidder,” BSO lawyer Messana told Judge Ray. “We’re saying the process was unfair.”