Broward chief judge leads push to release from jail nonviolent poor who can’t make bail

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward Chief Judge Jack Tuter Photo: J.A.A.B Blog

Concerned that poor people charged with minor, nonviolent offenses who can’t post bond are clogging the jail at taxpayers’ expense, Broward Chief Judge Jack Tuter is spearheading a push to release more of them before trial.

“If you are in jail more than a couple of days on a low bond, you are probably there because you can’t afford to post the bond. People shouldn’t be waiting in jail simply because they are poor,” Tuter said in an interview last week. “It’s a multi-faceted problem, but my goal is to get out those with ties to the community and some degree of assurance they’ll show up in court.”

Tuter, who took over as chief judge on July 1, said recent Broward jail statistics showed that 321 people were being held on bonds of under $5,000. Low-risk individuals in that group with no other pending charges are the focus of Tuter’s concern.

Broward’s County Court judges serve on a rotating basis as first appearance, or Bond Court judges. Earlier this month, Tuter and representatives from the Broward Sheriff’s pretrial diversion program met with those judges for a refresher about the options for judges when dealing with incoming defendants, including less costly electronic monitoring and releasing defendants on their own recognizance.

“Most judges knew this, but I reemphasized it,” said Tuter. “Is there an alternative to jail?”

The chief judge’s action was warmly met by Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, who has long accused local judges of fostering a “double standard” of justice by ignoring the disparate treatment of minorities and the indigent.

“Broward County is taking its first steps to end the institutionalized racist justice system that has existed in our county for the past 50 years,” Finkelstein said. “We have a chief judge who’s trying to figure out the right thing.”

Broward’s jails have a troubled history that led to decades of federal monitoring to protect the constitutional rights of inmates. In 1976, inmates sued alleging a variety of constitutional violations stemming from overcrowding, abuse and inadequate medical care. The case was largely settled last December – 40 years later.

Chronic overcrowding is not currently a problem, with the inmate population under 4,000 and about 77 percent of the system’s 5,144 bed capacity.

More reductions sought

Still, Tuter wants to see that number lower. “I’d like to see it under 70 percent,” he said.

The cost to house an inmate in Broward is about $150 a day. The cost to taxpayers to keep 30 inmates who can’t meet a small bond in jail for 30 days is about $135,000. In contrast, Tuter said it costs $5 a day to put an ankle monitor on a defendant.

The question of who should be released is complicated by several factors, not the least of which is how to deal with defendants who don’t have a permanent address. An address is required for pretrial release. It allows the court system to notify defendants when they must appear in court so judges don’t have to order deputies to go out and pick them up.

When low-bond defendants remain in custody for more than five days or a week judges typically take a “second look” to see if a reason exists to let them out. But if the courts are not successful in further reducing the jail population, Tuter will consider instituting a “third look docket” that will have judges go to the jail to make “a more refined approach” to finding pretrial release.

The court has a lengthy schedule of “convenience bonds” that offer defendants preset amounts they can post to get out of jail, depending on the charge, without even seeing a judge. The bond range is from $25 to $500,000.

Public Defender Finkelstein wants to end the use of convenience bonds, which he says are convenient to judges and the well-to-do, but not his typically indigent clients. Tuter, who was appointed to Broward’s circuit court bench by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2005, has no plans to scrap the schedule.

Still, change that promises to address old grievances has begun.

“Broward seems to be coming out of its constitutional slumber,” said Finkelstein. “It’s like the lights went on and everybody realizes we haven’t been doing things right.”

State Sen. Lauren Book seeks restraining order to silence protester

By Francisco Alvarado,FloridaBulldog.org 

Derek Logue protesting in Tallahassee during Lauren Book’s rally for the charity Lauren’s Kids on April 22, 2015

As Broward State Sen. Lauren Book prepares for her annual walk to raise awareness about child sex abuse, she wants to make sure one of her harshest critics is nowhere near her.

On July 26, Sen. Book filed a petition in Broward Circuit Court seeking a restraining order against Derek Logue, a 40-year-old Ohio man convicted of sexually assaulting an 11-year-old girl in 2001. Logue today is an advocate for registered sex offenders.

You won’t find Sen. Book’s petition at the county courthouse. A clerk in the Broward court’s domestic violence division told a reporter it is confidential. The reason: Florida Statute 119 says that any documents that reveal the identity, address or phone numbers of a potential crime victim are exempt from Florida’s liberal public records law.

Florida Bulldog obtained a copy of her petition from Logue.

Sen. Book claims she fears for her and her family’s safety following physical threats Logue allegedly made against her online and in person during two public events in 2015 and 2016. In addition to seeking to bar Logue from showing up at her annual walk events, she wants to keep him from coming within 500 feet of her home and her offices.

But Broward Circuit Court Judge Michael G. Kaplan rejected Sen. Book’s request for a temporary restraining order on Aug. 9, noting there was insufficient evidence showing she was in immediate danger. A hearing on her request for a permanent restraining order is scheduled for Sept. 1.

Sen. Book declined comment, but her father, prominent Tallahassee lobbyist Ron Book, told Florida Bulldog Logue has been harassing him and his daughter for roughly four years. “We had ignored his harassment because we don’t believe he is terribly relevant,” Book said. “He has little credibility.”

However, Book said the last straw occurred on July 8, when Logue tweeted “I think I found the official Laura Ahearn/ Lauren Book theme song” next to a link to a YouTube video for a song titled, “You Are A C—,” by Australian singer and comedian Kat McSnatch. Ahearn is executive director of Parents for Megan’s Law, a New York-based advocacy group for victims of sex crimes.

Ugly lyrics

Among its provocative lyrics is this ugly line: “Why don’t you shut that scabby c— mouth before I f— up your face.” The crude video also features an image of a tombstone that reads, “R.I.P. Annoying C—.”

According to Ron Book and Sen. Book’s petition, officials from several New York law enforcement agencies advised that Logue’s tweet was a credible death threat. “We were advised to contact local law enforcement and take steps to make sure that the encounters we’ve had with Mr. Logue don’t happen again. When you cross the line and threaten to f—k up someone’s face followed by ‘R.I.P.,’ that is a credible threat,” said Ron Book.

Lauren and Ron Book in Times Square in March 2015 promoting her child sex abuse education book. Photo from the documentary “Untouchable” by David Feige

Logue dismissed the Books’ accusations as “a load of hogwash.” He claims the petition is an attempt to stop him from exercising his First Amendment right to speak out against their lifelong campaign against registered sex offenders.

“It is easy to make me look like the bad guy because I am a registered citizen,” Logue told Florida Bulldog. “You may not like my choice of words. I do cuss and I do call people the C word. She is offended by it, but I don’t care. It’s protected free speech.”

He added, “She is simply trying to prevent me from raining on her little parade.”

Sen. Book is the founder and $135,000-a-year chief executive officer of Lauren’s Kids, a non-profit agency that has collected more than $10 million in grants from the Florida Legislature to fund an array of educational programs to convince victims and children advocates to report child sex crimes. However, the effectiveness of the programs have come under fire as Sen. Book has used Lauren’s Kids to elevate her public profile.

The Plantation Democrat, who was sexually abused as a teen by her former nanny, also makes an annual trek on foot from Key West to Tallahassee to raise awareness for child sex victims. This year’s walk is scheduled to begin on Sept. 9.

In her petition, Sen. Book claims that in 2015 Logue traveled to Tallahassee and organized a group of sex offenders in an attempt to disrupt the final mile of her annual walk. “The workers were warned in advance and they were able to keep the walk peaceful with the help of the Capitol Police, the Tallahassee Police Department and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement,” the petition says.

A year later, Logue traveled to New York City to attend a screening of the documentary Untouchable at the Tribeca Film Festival to harass Sen. Book during a question and answer session, the petition alleges. The Books are prominently featured in the movie about the impact of sex offender laws on individuals convicted of sex crimes.

“During the question and answer segment, he became unruly enough that his microphone was cut off and petitioner was surrounded by New York Police Department officers to protect her,” the petition states. Sen. Book claims she learned of Logue’s July 8 tweet after being contacted by an advocate for Parents of Megan’s Law who saw it and who filed a report with the New York field office of the FBI.

A rally planned for Miami

The petition also noted that Logue’s website OnceFallen.com and a Facebook page he is affiliated with is promoting a rally planned for Miami in September: “The coincidence is palpable.”

In his response to the petition and during an interview with Florida Bulldog, Logue said he has participated in and helped organize demonstrations across the country against sex offender registry laws and other legislation he believes discriminate against sex offenders who have done their time. He has also been interviewed on the topic by CNN, HLN and Russia Today, as well as local and regional news outlets, Logue said.

He said the 2015 demonstration in Tallahassee was peaceful even though Lauren’s Kids officials tried to report him for not registering with the state of Florida for the event. “I am free to travel anywhere in the United States of America,” Logue’s response states. “In fact, I made it a point to contact the Leon County Sheriff’s office to confirm that I would not need to register as a sex offender to visit for less than 48 hours to engage in a peaceful demonstration.”

Logue said he attended the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival because he had been interviewed for Untouchable, but the footage did not make into the documentary. He did make a brief appearance halfway through the film during scenes of the demonstration in Tallahassee. He said he only learned the Books were also in attendance when he arrived for the screening.

Logue said the documentary’s director David Feige asked him not to be too nasty to the Book family and he obliged. He denies disrupting the question and answer session. “I asked her why she preaches that sex offenders don’t deserve second chances when her father is also a convicted criminal that got second and third chances,” Logue said. “She made a snarky remark, I laughed and sat back down.”

On Sept. 21, 1995, Ron Book pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor charges and was fined $2,000 following a criminal investigation that found he violated state law by funneling more than $30,000 in illegal campaign contributions to at least a dozen county and state politicians.

Logue, who isn’t shy about owning up to his sex crime conviction, claims when he went to register in his home state in July, his registration officer told him someone claiming to be a state senator called to complain that he called her a c— and that she was offended by it. “I call a lot of people c—s,” Logue said. “I understand not everyone appreciates crude language. Yet, we elected a president that uses crude language and what not.”

Logue’s lawyer, Jamie Benjamin, did not respond to a phone message seeking comment. Sen. Book’s lawyer, Fort Lauderdale’s David Bogenschutz, said her role as a public official makes her a vulnerable target to threats of a violent nature.

“She and several law enforcement agencies believe [Logue’s behavior] crosses the line between what is protected by the First Amendment and threats that cause individuals to have legitimate concerns for themselves and their family members,” Bogenschutz said. “If it continues, and it has continued, we need the court’s intervention to draw the line for us.”

Strange case: BSO looking to buy rights to embarrassing lawsuit to quash it

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel

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.

Strange case

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.

Jennifer Bakowski

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.”

As some judges balk at Broward’s new high-rise courthouse, BSO has security issues

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward’s new 20-story courthouse tower

Broward’s juvenile delinquency judges have refused to move into the county’s new $276.4 million high-rise courthouse, while Broward Sheriff’s officials described the building as riddled with security issues, including a “serious escape risk.”

A Feb. 15 BSO internal memo obtained by Florida Bulldog lists 25 security issues or design flaws identified during a “thorough examination of the detention area” of the 20-story structure. Some might seem comical if they weren’t so serious.

For example, the report notes that light switches and thermostats for holding cells are located inside, instead of outside, the cells, giving inmates control.

BSO requested immediate corrective action to remove the switches and thermostats.

“The light switches should only be controlled by staff in the control room,” the memo says. “The temperature should only be controlled by staff in the control room.”

Further, the memo says lighting is adjusted by certain efficiency measures. Those measures “must be removed so that the cell lighting is strictly controlled by staff. Inmates in the holding cells must be visible at all times.”

Assistant County Administrator Alphonso Jefferson said juvenile courtrooms, like other courtrooms, were “built in accordance with approved design plans” signed off on by the court years ago. He nevertheless said the county is working with the sheriff’s office to make the desired fixes.d

Broward Assistant County Manager Alphonso Jefferson

“I’m aware of this and these are punch-list items,” he said. “There are punch-list items with any building, items you have that need to be addressed. We’ve had numerous walk-throughs with BSO and we’ve identified these items that are additional.”

BSO declined to comment, except to say that the memo, prepared by Captain Veronica Carroll, commander of the detention department’s Central Intake Bureau, was later updated. A request to see a copy of the updated memo was denied.

Juvenile delinquency judges say no thanks

Apparently not fixable, however, were matters of concern to enough of the county’s four juvenile delinquency judges that they decided recently to remain in or move to courtrooms in the courthouse’s modern North Tower on Southwest Third Avenue in Fort Lauderdale.

“Judge [Elijah] Williams and I went over there and it didn’t take us long to figure out that those courtrooms were not appropriate for juvenile delinquency court,” said Broward Juvenile Court Judge Carlos Rebollo.

Among other things, he said, the new juvenile courtrooms located on the tower’s ninth floor are “very small,” include no jury box where in-custody juveniles are kept while in court and have “holding cells that looked like a prison.”

“You’re dealing with juveniles and the last thing you want to do is put them in an environment in which it looks like they’re in prison,” said Rebollo.

The juvenile holding cells, which do not allow for the separation of male and female inmates, have open toilets.

“The way these things were designed was very institutionalized and the judges were very adamant that they didn’t want these kids to be placed in those holding cells,” said Chief Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes, whose office also opposed the new juvenile courtrooms. “They have an open toilet. You put four kids in there and if one has to use the bathroom they have to do it in front of the other three with no partition, and maybe even in front of an adult passing through.”

Fixes would be costly

Weekes said the cost to modify the juvenile facilities to make them acceptable for such work would have been great.

“It’s my understanding after speaking to the county that it would be millions of dollars to fix issues in the juvenile courtrooms,” Weekes said. The courtrooms will now apparently be repurposed.

To date, the new tower remains largely unoccupied. Those that have moved in include the clerk of courts, the state attorney, BSO and probate courts, Jefferson said. March 20 was set to be the date by which most of the judges would move in, but the date was said by two sources to have been abandoned amid an argument between the county and BSO on appropriate security staffing levels.

BSO’s memo addresses a variety of security deficiencies in the new courthouse, the most critical of which was in the sally port, the secure gateway between the jail and court. One issue cited in the report “poses a serious escape risk.” The underline is in the memo.

Other issues include “numerous blind spots” that pose life safety issues, fire sprinklers can be too easily tampered with by inmate, and “in-cell cameras are encased in cheap plastic that is easily manipulated.’’ The detention area also has no Self Contained Breathing Apparatus, a device that can provide breathable air in an emergency.

Of particular concern to Weekes was another holding cell deficiency: a handicap railing that’s “contrary to suicide prevention.”

“Most people think of a jail suicide as someone hanging from an overhead bar, but anyone can wrap a towel around their neck and lean forward. That’s just as effective. I don’t understand why they would allow that.”

Race for job of Broward chief judge takes shape; Three hopefuls so far

By David Lyons, FloridaBulldog.org 

From left to right, Broward Circuit judges Alfred Horowitz, Jack Tuter and Carlos Rodriguez

From left to right, Broward Circuit judges Alfred Horowitz, Jack Tuter and Carlos Rodriguez

A three-way race is looming among prominent circuit judges to become the next chief judge of Broward County, a largely ceremonial post that has been used as a bully pulpit for better court services and a venue for third-rail policy disputes.

Veteran Circuit Judge Peter Weinstein, who has served six years as chief, is not standing for re-election by a vote of judges in February 2017.

The announced candidates to replace him as chief of the state’s second largest circuit are Circuit Judges Alfred F. Horowitz, Carlos A. Rodriguez and Jack Tuter.

In the past, Broward chief judges have lobbied for specialty courts, for new and improved court facilities and for better file management service from the clerk of the court. Most recently, Weinstein exchanged written blows with Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, who accused the court of entrapping low-income defendants in a cycle of debt and jail through the use of “convenience bail bonds.”

Replied Weinstein: “Howard can write what he wants, but that doesn’t necessarily make it so.”

Tuter declined to discuss his candidacy. Horowitz and Rodriguez did not respond to voicemails left at their chambers.

Weinstein declined to discuss the election. Three years ago, however, he named Tuter to serve as acting chief judge in his absence.

The chief judge oversees the circuit court’s budget, supervises the senior administrative staff and court administrator, and decides where the court’s judges will be assigned. The chief also establishes local rules, sets court calendars and even decides who works on weekends.

When judicial vacancies occur, the governor and local judicial nominating commissions have been known to solicit the chief judge’s opinion on who should be appointed to fill off-election-year vacancies.

Weinstein served three terms as chief

Weinstein, who served as a Florida state senator for 14 years, has served more than 18 years on the bench of the 17th Judicial Circuit, the second largest circuit court in Florida. He became a judge by gubernatorial appointment in 1998.

In 2015, Weinstein won a third two-year term as chief judge in what he described at the time as a “very hotly contested race.” He edged Horowitz 46 to 42 in the balloting by Broward’s judges. After the victory, Weinstein made it clear that the third term would be his last.

Horowitz, who is making his second consecutive run for the post, currently presides in the court’s family division. He was appointed to the circuit bench in 2000 by then-Gov. Jeb Bush after serving five years as a county court judge. Between 1986 and 1995, he was in private practice at Horowitz & Rolnick. He earned his law degree from Samford University and a Masters in Taxation from New York University. His wife, Giuseppina Miranda, is a county court judge

Rodriguez presides in the civil division. He moved to Fort Lauderdale from Cuba in 1962 at the age of 5. His family sought political asylum in 1967, and he became an American citizen. Rodriguez earned his law degree from the University of Florida. Before taking the bench, he spent three years as a Broward Assistant Public Defender and two years as a Chief Assistant Public Defender. He spent 23 years in private practice with the Fazio, Dawson firm and later operated his own firm, handling both criminal and civil cases.

Tuter is the administrative judge in the circuit’s civil division. In 2013, he served as acting chief during a short-term absence by Weinstein. In 2014, The Federal Judicial Nominating Commission interviewed Tuter for a U.S. District Court vacancy in the Southern District of Florida.

Tuter ascended to the Broward bench in 2005 when he was appointed to fill a vacancy by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. He has been elected twice to full six-year terms. His current term expires in 2021. Before becoming a judge, he was in private practice with Conrad & Scherer, and with Stephens, Lynn, Klein, Lacava, Hoffman & Puya. Prior to that, he was a managing attorney with American International Group. Tutor earned his law degree from Memphis State University.

Few judges have occupied the chief judge post over the last two and a half decades.

Weinstein’s immediate predecessor, Circuit Judge Victor Tobin, left the bench in 2011 after a four-year stint as chief judge. During his term as chief, Tobin criticized Clerk of Courts Howard Forman over the management of courthouse paperwork.

Tobin was an early promoter of constructing a new main courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale to replace a building notorious for water leaks that saturated files, generated mold and fouled the air. A tower building eventually did rise, at cost of $262 million, and it recently received a certificate of occupancy from the city. But the county says it’s not ready to open.

After leaving the court, Tobin entered private practice with the foreclosure law firm of Marshall C. Watson to help it improve its “best practices.” The firm was among several from around Florida that drew scrutiny from the State Attorney General’s Office over its handling of foreclosure case paperwork.

Tobin was preceded by the longest tenured holder of the chief judge’s office, Dale Ross, who retired from the bench in early September after 35 years as a judge.

Ross held the chief judge’s post from 1990 until 2007, a stretch that saw him embroiled in a number of controversies. Defense lawyers – most notably the public defender Howard Finkelstein — called him insensitive to the indigent. An appellate court called him pro-prosecution. Many lawyers found him to be brusque. And for years, he refused to speak with reporters from the Daily Business Review, the 17th Judicial Circuit’s official court newspaper.

Still, Ross was credited with several innovations that occurred on his watch: the establishment of a Drug Court, a Mental Health Court and a court for domestic violence victims.

Ross left the bench with two years remaining on his judicial term. The 17th Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission has sent a short list of candidates to Gov. Rick Scott to fill the vacancy by appointment.

Broward courts accused of nurturing double standard of justice for poor, minorities

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein, left, and Public Defender Howard Finkelstein

Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein, left, and Public Defender Howard Finkelstein

A letter from the U.S. Justice Department urging state judges across the country to eliminate “common” court practices that illegally trap poor defendants in cycles of debt and jail is reverberating in Broward with accusations that courts here favor the well-off.

Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein once again is leading the charge for systemic reform as evidenced by a series of testy recent written exchanges with Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein. Among other things, Finkelstein wants the courts to scrap the use of so-called “convenience bail bonds” the poor often cannot afford, and accuses judges of fostering a “double standard” of justice by ignoring the disparate treatment of minorities and the indigent.

“This jurisdiction’s practices have effectively institutionalized racism by disproportionately incarcerating poor minorities for decades,” Finkelstein concluded Sept. 2 in his most recent letter to Weinstein.

In an interview on Friday, Weinstein replied, “I don’t know where he gets that from. Every judge ascribes to the saying that justice is blind and ignores race, creed, national origin and gender in ruling. Howard can absolutely write what he wants, but that doesn’t necessarily make it so.”

The Department of Justice’s March 14 letter, signed by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, followed a gathering of judges, court administrators, lawmakers, prosecutors, defense attorneys and others last December to discuss fines and fees imposed by state and local courts. The letter said the convocation, held in the wake of the department’s investigation of racially troubled Ferguson, Missouri, “made plain that unlawful and harmful practices exist in certain jurisdictions throughout the country.”

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch described those illegal practices as “the criminalization of poverty.”

The letter explained it was issued to help the courts ensure that they operate fairly, noting the illegal enforcement of court fines and fees can have “profound” effects on low-income persons accused of “misdemeanors, quasi-criminal ordinance violations or civil infractions.”

“Individuals may confront escalating debt; face repeated, unnecessary incarceration for nonpayment despite posing no danger to the community;

lose their jobs; and become trapped in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape,” the nine-page letter said. “To the extent that these practices are geared not toward addressing public safety, but rather toward raising revenue, they can cast doubt on the impartiality of the tribunal and erode trust between local government and their constituents.”

A caution from Justice

Among other things, the letter cautioned that courts “must not employ bail or bond practices that cause indigent defendants to remain incarcerated solely because they cannot afford to pay for their release.”

Finkelstein, a state constitutional officer, filed a public records request with the Broward court to obtain a copy of the Justice Department’s letter. Weinstein later explained that he “did not provide the letter to any stakeholder as it was addressed to the courts to assist with review of local practices and procedures.”

Weinstein said Friday he’s waiting on Florida’s Office of the State Court Administrator. “They’re reviewing it and will come back and advise us,” he said. “But I really don’t believe we are doing some of the things we are accused of. We don’t put people in jail because they can’t pay a fine.”

According to Finkelstein’s Sept. 2 letter, however, “Individuals are often held in jail following a magistrate hearing for a minor offense simply because they cannot afford to post the bond.”

Beyond the fundamental question of fairness is the impact that bond requirements have on Broward’s chronically overpopulated jail system, which has been under a federal consent decree and monitoring for decades.

In July, the Sun-Sentinel reported the findings of court-appointed jail population expert Dr. James Austin, who said Broward’s jails typically house 4,500 to 4,600 people, with 5,144 beds, but when the population exceeds 85 percent of capacity – or about 4,400 inmates – the system becomes strained.

According to the paper, Austin’s report went on to say that at the time of his analysis in 2015 about 300 inmates were being held on bonds of $100 or less.

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed.” Federal courts have interpreted that to mean that a defendant’s bail cannot be set higher than an amount that’s likely necessary to ensure his presence at trial.

Defendants charged with first-degree misdemeanors like petty theft or possession of a small amount of marijuana must post a $100 bond to get out. Those charged with a misdemeanor of the second degree, such as disorderly intoxication or loitering will need $25.

But even those small amounts can be difficult to scrape up for the homeless or the otherwise down and out.

‘Follow other jurisdictions’

In his summer correspondence, Finkelstein urged Weinstein to “follow other jurisdictions and begin implementing the release of misdemeanants without monetary bond.” He cited Calhoun, Ga., which in January “implemented recognizance release procedures” following a federal judge’s order.

The chief judge responded to Finkelstein that Broward judges do consider non-monetary releases “and divert as many individuals as possible to the Broward County Sheriff’s Pre-Trial Release Program.” The program includes screening, assessment and, for those who get out, monitoring.

Yet current bond practices that allow moneyed defendants to post a bond and walk free until trial “disproportionally affects minorities and the indigent,” according to Finkelstein.

“Diverting individuals to the pre-trial release program creates a double-standard wherein those with money are not required to be supervised by the Sheriff’s Office, while those without money require supervision,” Finkelstein wrote in his Sept. 2 letter.

In Friday’s interview, Weinstein said he is opposed to releasing all misdemeanor defendants on their own recognizance, noting that a “staggering” number of warrants are issued every year for defendants who fail to show up for trial.

“Whether to release is within the discretion of the judge,” Weinstein said. He cited domestic violence as a crime that is inappropriate for such treatment.

“Domestic violence may be a misdemeanor, but the amount of psychological abuse and previous physical abuse that a spouse may have suffered may place them at risk of serious emotional harm an even death,” Weinstein said.

In 2015, following complaints from State Attorney Mike Satz’s office, the court revised its bond schedule to require misdemeanor defendants charged with violent offenses such as battery, arson and domestic violence to appear before a First Appearance court judge before being eligible to post bond.

Finkelstein, however, argues that Broward’s bond schedule should be abandoned and that all defendants should be brought before a First Appearance court judge “to allow for individualized release conditions.”

“Individual determinations, however, require a 24-hour magistrate. This circuit has decided not to place such a ‘hardship’ on the judiciary, but instead place the true hardship on the indigent,” Finkelstein wrote.

Secret U.S. Marshals’ report ID’d security weaknesses at Broward courthouse before escape

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward County Courthouse

Broward County Courthouse

A confidential U.S. Marshals’ security assessment for the Broward County Courthouse exposed numerous weaknesses in the building’s security system four years before last week’s scandalous escape of a 21-year-old murder suspect.

The assessment included several recommendations that, if implemented, may well have prevented Dayonte Resiles’ desperate dash out of Judge Raag Singhal’s courtroom, down four flights of stairs and out a fire emergency door to short-lived freedom.

Resiles, who escaped one week ago, was captured Wednesday without incident at a West Palm Beach motel and returned to Broward. Seven people have been charged with aiding in the escape of Resiles, who is accused of stabbing to death Jill Halliburton Su in her Davie home in 2014.

Resiles’ arrest, however, did little to ease anxiety about courthouse security.

“Here’s the bottom line, and it’s something we’ve been talking about for years and clearly predates Sheriff [Scott] Israel. We do not have sufficient staffing from the sheriff’s department in this courthouse,” Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein said Thursday.

“We constantly hear from the county, ‘We give the sheriff sufficient funding to run the department.’ The sheriff says, ‘I don’t have enough manpower.’ And we’re the people in the middle,” said Weinstein.

The first page of the U.S. Marshals Service security assessment for the Broward County Courthouse.

The first page of the U.S. Marshals Service security assessment for the Broward County Courthouse.

The U.S. Marshals’ assessment, a copy of which was obtained by the Florida Bulldog,  similarly noted the need for more law enforcement personnel in both the lobby screening station and courtrooms.

“There is not an armed security officer assigned to each courtroom, instead, there are civilian court deputies. Very few of the courtrooms have armed security officers,” says the assessment. “On an average day, the central courthouse has approximately 14 law enforcement officers working in the building. This building has 54 judges and 11 magistrates. In-custody defendants are ‘dropped-off’ in courtrooms with no law enforcement personnel present.”

The recommendation: “one court deputy for every judge. Court deputies should be armed and trained by BSO and should have access to a duress alarm. Two law enforcement officers for in-custody defendants,” with an additional officer for each additional defendant.

Israel tweaks courthouse security

On Monday, Sheriff Israel moved the Broward Sheriff’s Office part-way toward the Marshals’ recommendations. From now on, he said, maximum-security inmates appearing in court would have a sworn deputy with them at all times, not just a civilian bailiff. A detention deputy who escorts the prisoner to court “will only release custody once an armed deputy is present,” the sheriff said in a statement.

Israel did not address the report’s call for shielding judges with bulletproof glass or improving the knee wall and gate that now partially separates the courtroom gallery areas from public seating area and does not extend the width of the courtroom.

WPLG Local 10 reported Monday that Israel did not accept $2.6 million offered by the county last year to beef up courthouse security. The offer, said to be in writing, would have doubled the number of armed courthouse deputies from 29 to 58 and also allowed the sheriff to “guarantee that every high-risk inmate like Resiles could be accompanied by at least one armed deputy in addition to a bailiff,” the television station reported.

BSO spokeswoman Veda Coleman-Wright responded Thursday: “We support having an armed deputy (plus additional BSO personnel) in every critical courtroom in the courthouse, but the county has not approved additional staffing or funding to provide this level of coverage.”

Coleman-Wright also provided a Wednesday memo written to the County Commission by BSO General Counsel Ron Gunzburger. It accuses county administrators of holding the $2.6 million “hostage until the sheriff signs a global memo of understanding (MOU)” for the entire judicial complex that would build on existing staffing levels that are “woefully inadequate,” locking in future personnel shortfalls.

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel

“If the sheriff would sign the proffered MOU, he would be agreeing to continue inadequate and unsafe staffing for the greatly expanded size of the entire complex…The sheriff is unwilling to sign this deeply flawed agreement,” the memo says.

Assistant County Administrator Alphonso Jefferson disputed that account. He said the MOU would ensure that dollars allocated by the county specifically for courthouse security would actually be spent by the sheriff on courthouse security, and not be diverted to the sheriff’s other priorities.

“Essentially, we want to make sure the money is earmarked for courthouse security,” said Jefferson. “You don’t want to be back with the same issue down the road.”

BSO and Broward’s judiciary asked the Marshals’ Office to evaluate security because of their expertise in arranging security for federal courthouses. The evaluation, completed in July 2012, was done after several fleeing defendants had highlighted courthouse security deficiencies.

“What report?”

According to Jefferson, however, the security assessment was done without the county’s knowledge. He said county officials didn’t learn about it until November 2013. “It was at a meeting with BSO and the judiciary when we heard about the report. We said, ‘What report?’”

The county soon put together a task force of all the players, including the court administrator’s office. He said that as a result, the county has been spending $1.8 million to address a number of recommendations – for example, installing security cameras and improving security at entry screening areas in the East Wing and the North Tower that houses felony courtrooms

The Marshal’s security review looked at a wide variety of areas from outside perimeter security to courtrooms and chambers, public area and access control and law enforcement staffing and technology.

“Security is of fundamental importance to every court because the impartial and independent application of the law may be threatened by intrusion, disruption, intimidation, force, theft, malicious and environmental disaster,” says the assessment. “If a court cannot operate with a high degree of security, its legitimacy has the potential to be undermined.”

Other recommendations included the installation of numerous closed circuit television cameras inside and outside the courthouse, door and window alarms, additional barriers to prevent vehicle intrusion, better external lighting and better monitoring of nighttime cleaning crews.

The marshals’ assessment team, while acknowledging that implementing its recommendations would be costly, emphasized “that an acceptable level of security will only be reached when all of the measures at the best practice level are incorporated… Care should be taken to prioritize and implement as many of the recommendations as quickly as possible.”

The review did not estimate costs, but some were simple and relatively inexpensive. For example, report notes that in many courtrooms the door leading to a judge’s chambers had the lock on the courtroom side of the door.

“This means that if someone was chasing the judge and the judge runs into chambers, the judge has no way of locking the door. This also means that prior to court commencing, anyone could turn the lock and have access to chambers,” says the report, which recommended reversing the locks, with the deadbolt on the chambers’ side.

Many of the reports’ recommendations have not been adopted. Chief Judge Weinstein said, however, that many would be incorporated into the new, $250-million high-rise courthouse building that remains unfinished. The new courthouse was supposed to open last year, but is now expected to open in October, said Weinstein.

After the new courthouse opens, the old 10-story courthouse will be demolished and a plaza and new parking facility will be installed. The more modern felony wing on the east side of the courthouse will remain, and be connected by walkways to the new 20-story courthouse.

Broward medical examiner’s evidence policy worries prosecutors, defense lawyers

 

By Eric Barton, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward Medical Examiner Dr. Craig Mallak

Broward Medical Examiner Dr. Craig Mallak

The Broward County medical examiner has been destroying some tissue and blood samples after they are a year old, a policy defense attorneys and prosecutors say could affect untold numbers of criminal cases.

Dr. Craig Mallak told the Florida Bulldog he instituted the policy shortly after taking Broward’s chief medical examiner position in 2012. He says the rule helps ease his office’s overcrowded evidence storage and also conforms to the norms of his industry.

The change was never publicly announced. Instead, Fort Lauderdale defense attorney J. David Bogenschutz discovered it during depositions in a murder case. The Medical Examiner’s Office destroyed a year-old blood sample in that case, and now Bogenschutz believes charges against his client should be dropped.

Attorneys on both sides of criminal prosecutions say other cases could be affected by the destroyed-evidence policy. After learning of the change in 2013, Broward Assistant State Attorney Brian Cavanagh sent an email to fellow prosecutors warning that it “presents a significant destruction of evidence problem.”

So far, no cases have been thrown out or lost at trial because of the policy. But Public Defender Howard Finkelstein said the change will likely lead to requests for dismissals and mistrials in criminal cases where the evidence has been destroyed. In others, the destroyed evidence might simply be something that defense attorneys use to cast a reasonable doubt.

“There are plenty of ways you can increase storage capacity, but you can’t reclaim evidence once it’s destroyed,” Finkelstein said. “There will be a cloud over this kind of evidence for as long as this policy continues.”

The medical examiner’s practice of destroying year-old toxicology samples came to light as Bogenschutz developed his defense for Ronald Melnik on a second-degree murder charge.

According to prosecutors, Melnik shot Reza Payan shortly after midnight on Jan. 1, 2011. Bogenschutz said Melnik claims that Payan, a heavily trained Brazilian ju-jitsu fighter, attacked him for no reason and that he shot his longtime friend five times to defend himself.

Bogenschutz was going over the evidence with his client about a year after the shooting when Melnik honed in on a crime scene photo. On the ground near Payan’s body was a small vial, attached to Payan’s keychain.

The vial contained ecstasy, or MDMA, a psychoactive drug, Bogenschutz said. That night, Payan had also been drinking and smoking pot heavily. Mixed with ecstasy, that could lead to inexplicable aggression.

Police had taken a sample of Payan’s blood, so Bogenschutz sought to have it tested for ecstasy by an independent lab.

Blood sample destroyed

In April 2015, Bogenschutz learned from Dr. Gary Kunsman, the chief toxicologist at the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office, that the sample had been destroyed under the new policy.

In response, Bogenschutz filed a 180-page motion to dismiss the charges against Melnik. At issue is a legal term called spoliation, which typically comes up when police or prosecutors have deliberately hidden evidence.

Fort Lauderdale defense lawyer J. David Bogenschutz

Fort Lauderdale defense lawyer J. David Bogenschutz

“The question for the judge is, can this destruction of evidence affect the outcome? And we believe that it clearly does,” Bogenschutz said.

The bigger issue, Bogenschutz said, is how this might affect other cases, especially those filed months after a crime. The defense in those cases may have no chance to conduct its own analysis of evidence that has been destroyed.

“I’ve had cases when eight, 10 or 12 months pass before charges are even filed. That would mean the defense has no chance to conduct its own examination of what might be key evidence,” said Bogenschutz, who has practiced in Florida since 1971.

During depositions in Melnik’s case, the medical examiner and his employees revealed that they had begun a new policy in late 2012 of destroying toxicology samples that were a year old.

Bogenschutz then filed a records request with the State Attorney’s Office and found a series of emails with Mallak, urging him to change the policy. The State Attorney’s Office offered compromises, including storing samples longer for ongoing criminal trials or notifying attorneys before samples are destroyed. In the end, Mallak agreed to one change: keeping blood samples in DUI cases for two years but destroying all others after a year.

Mallak said he was surprised that his policy caused “a shock to the system around here.” He said defense attorneys and prosecutors need to understand that the old policy was flawed, and that blood and tissue samples kept for months begin to deteriorate and cannot be accurately tested. Bacteria and mold can corrode the tissue, making samples meaningless.

‘I can’t change the laws of nature’

“I personally don’t keep things in my refrigerator for years, so you can’t expect me to keep evidence that way,” Mallak said. “I can’t change the laws of nature. I can’t stop these samples from breaking down.”

Mallak came to Broward after serving as the U.S. Armed Forces medical examiner. He oversaw 250 employees in a crime lab with a $50-million budget. He worked on high-profile cases that include the space shuttle Columbia explosion and identifying the body of Saddam Hussein after the Iraqis hanged him.

In Broward he inherited a 38-person department that had been under scrutiny for poor case management and slow turnaround rates. Shortly after he arrived, Mallak shut down his lab after discovering that employees had improperly validated drug samples, which forced a review of toxicology results in pending criminal cases. He said he has since reduced his office’s turnaround from 90 days to 10 and overhauled testing methodology to conform with industry standards.

Mallak said he also discovered there was no policy governing when evidence was destroyed. Some blood and tissue samples stored by his office dated back decades. Mold and bacteria covered a few vials.

“These samples are not like a bullet that can just sit on a shelf indefinitely,” Mallak said. “They have no evidentiary value after a long time passes.”

The rule he established covers only those toxicology samples like blood and human tissue that can erode over time. DNA and other samples that can be stored without refrigeration are kept indefinitely, Mallak said.

The policy Mallak instituted follows minimum requirements set by Florida administrative rules. It also conforms to minimum industry standards, said Dr. David Fowler, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Blood and tissue samples can be kept for years if preserved in sodium fluoride. Medical examiners will often keep samples for years in ongoing cases, or when an attorney requests it, Fowler said. In Maryland, where Fowler is the state’s chief medical examiner, samples are typically kept for three years unless defense attorneys or prosecutors ask for them to be retained longer.

Broward Assistant State Attorney Brian Cavanagh

Broward Assistant State Attorney Brian Cavanagh

In Miami-Dade, the medical examiner’s office keeps such samples for five years, according to a memo on the department’s policy.

The destroyed evidence in Broward has become an issue in several criminal cases since the change, Cavanaugh said. But so far, no cases have been thrown out or lost at trial because of the policy.

When Cavanaugh learned of the change, he did an accounting of which cases might be affected. Among the destroyed evidence was blood taken from the 2012 crime scene where an 8-week-old baby died in the trunk of a car in Coral Springs. Luckily, Cavanaugh said, that evidence wasn’t pertinent. A jury in October returned a guilty verdict for the boy’s father, Janus Saintil, who is now serving a life sentence.

While the destroyed evidence wasn’t relevant in that case, Finkelstein worries that it could be in other cases. “This is not supposed to happen. People aren’t supposed to be acquitted because evidence has been destroyed,” Finkelstein said. “Even as a defense attorney, this is not what we want. We want the system to work correctly.”

In most cases, the destroyed evidence shouldn’t lead to charges being dropped or dismissed, explained Cavanaugh. But it’s an issue that could become a problem for prosecutors as defense attorneys use it to cast doubt. “It’s significant only in that it allows the defense to create an issue,” Cavanaugh said. “The question is, ultimately, is it going to be insurmountable?”

In the Melnik case, Circuit Judge Andrew Siegel has scheduled oral arguments for Aug. 5 to consider Bogenschutz’s motion to dismiss. The judge’s decision could be an indication of how the medical examiner’s policy can affect other cases.

Report: ChildNet Broward is failing, ‘urgent’ need to fix county’s child welfare system

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org childnet

Burdened with high caseloads and mired in millions of dollars in debt, the lead agency in Broward’s child welfare system is failing.

That’s the gist of a 15-page state task force report obtained by FloridaBulldog.org about ChildNet Broward, the nonprofit that received $67 million from Florida’s Department of Children & Families (DCF) this year to provide community-based child welfare services.

Underscoring what the report called the “urgent” need for corrective action, about 80 leaders from various agencies and other community stakeholders met on June 7 to review the current system of care and begin to figure out how to fix it. The meeting and the report, however, were not publicly announced.

The state’s 11-member “Risk Pool Review Committee” began its review of ChildNet after it sought additional state funds last winter to cover a $7.6-million deficit. ChildNet’s deficit grew to $8.2 million by the time the report was submitted to DCF Secretary Mike Carroll on March 28.

“The analysis identified several factors that are placing considerable strain on Broward County’s child welfare agencies which must be addressed quickly,” Carroll said in an email announcing the June 7 meeting at the department’s Broward office at 1400 West Commercial Blvd. in Fort Lauderdale. The meeting’s goal: to “reach agreement on a comprehensive action plan,” Carroll wrote.

Carroll declined to be interviewed, but State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said Monday that no comprehensive action plan was adopted at the meeting.

“They’re reviewing everything,” said Sobel, who chairs the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs. “The real problem that came into focus at this meeting was the judiciary. They don’t have enough judges to go through these cases in an expeditious and efficient manner.”

ChildNet President and CEO Emilio Benitez

ChildNet President and CEO Emilio Benitez

Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein, however, announced at the meeting that he would add two child dependency judges in the coming weeks, Sobel said.

Judge Hope Tieman Bristol, chair of the juvenile dependency division, did not response to repeated requests for comment.

The task force recommended ChildNet be given the extra funds, “contingent on their agreement to develop a corrective action plan,” including making sure abuse cases are appropriately entered into the Florida Safe Families Network database to improve state oversight.

Report ‘absolutely accurate’

ChildNet President/CEO Emilio Benitez, who called the task force report “absolutely accurate,” said Tuesday that Secretary Carroll approved $6.1 million, but the money has yet to be disbursed.

“It reduces the deficit significantly,” Benitez said.

The grant funds are to come from a $13 million state Risk Pool established by the Legislature to mitigate the financial risk to eligible “lead” child welfare agencies in communities around the state.

ChildNet Broward operates under a five-year contract with DCF. In its application for Risk Pool funding, ChildNet cited “staggering increases” in the number of at-risk children entering the county’s child welfare system. There were 3,601 dependent children in the system on Jan. 10, 2016 – the most since 2004 – and 1,287 more than on January 2014, ChildNet said.

“A major contributor has clearly been similarly record-setting increases in the number of children removed (from at-risk homes) by the Broward Sheriff’s Office Child Protective Investigators,” the application says. Nearly 1,400 children were removed in 2015.

Curiously, the task force reported that the removal rate in Broward, a county where the rate of child poverty is below the state average, was 7.8 per 100 children investigated last summer, compared to the statewide rate of 6.4 per 100 children investigated.

The committee, comprised of 11 child welfare experts from around the state, concluded that ChildNet’s ballooning caseloads are the result of both increased removals and fewer discharges from care, “leading to a significant increase in the number of children in out-of-home care.”

The background to those trends has been a decline in core services funds between 2010 and 2015. The result: “higher costs and declining quality,” the task force report said.

The report cited a “robust array of both governmental and private organizations” exist to address child welfare, including the Children Services Council that spends millions in tax dollars on prevention and diversion services targeted to children in the system. “But ChildNet needs to develop in-home services for unsafe children and for safety management to help alleviate some of the removals,” the report says.

Broward’s splintered child welfare system

The report was also critical of the splintered structure of Broward’s child welfare system.

“The responsibility for essential components of the system of care is spread among several different entities including the Broward Sheriff’s Office for the Child Protective Investigation function, the Office of the Attorney General for the Children’s Legal Services function and the Lead Agency (ChildNet) for child welfare functions,” the report says. “Unless there is a strong sense of community ownership of the child welfare system of care, different organizations may be accountable for part of the system but effective management of the overall system can suffer.”

Current trends “indicate that ChildNet is not on a path of longer term sustainability,” the report says. Risk Pool funding will avoid service disruptions this year, but without a “significant infusion of resources” ChildNet “is likely to experience a significant deficit next fiscal year.”

Still, Benitez was optimistic about ChildNet’s future.

“We have made a tremendous impact since the report and I think we are now heading in the right direction,” he said. “All the partners are now working together to find a solution.”

Broward County’s $18.9 million airport flip-flop and a new, secret whistleblower case

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

The Broward County Commission before Tuesday's vote to pay $18.9 million to settle a dispute with airport contractor Tutor Prerini.

The Broward County Commission before Tuesday’s vote to pay $18.9 million to settle a dispute with airport contractor Tutor Prerini.

With little public discussion, the Broward County Commission has overwhelmingly approved an $18.9-million payout to airport contractor Tutor Perini to settle a bitter dispute about who was to blame for costly construction delays.

Paperwork filed in support of the deal, including the settlement itself, revealed that an unidentified whistleblower recently sued Tutor Perini in circuit court using the Broward County False Claims Ordinance. The whistleblower’s claims are not known, but sources said an unhappy subcontractor filed the complaint. Whistleblowers who help the county recover money lost to fraud or other schemes can recover a reward of up to 25 percent of the proceeds.

Tuesday’s settlement deal, approved in a 6-1 vote, marks an expensive flip-flop by the county from assertions earlier this year by then-Broward aviation department boss Kent George that, in fact, Tutor Perini owed the county more than $34 million for those delays.

George stepped down as aviation director in March, but remains on the county’s payroll until the end of the year. He negotiated the settlement approved Tuesday.

In January, FloridaBulldog.org reported that on New Year’s Eve George had a letter sent to Tutor Perini demanding those damages cover the costs of a dozen “significant … deficiencies and unresolved issues” that seriously delayed completion of the $800-million expanded south runway at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

“You owe us millions of dollars and now I’m paying you millions of dollars in a settlement?” Commissioner Lois Wexler said Tuesday. “Unless there’s a real explanation as to how it morphed into something else, I’ll be a no vote today.”

County Attorney Joni Armstrong Coffey, who recommended approval of the settlement, offered a brief discussion about that. Coffey indicated the county was responsible for the delays because change orders expanding the scope of Tutor Perini’s work were approved without an appropriate expansion of work days in which to complete it.

A dissatisfied Wexler voted a lonely no.

Tutor Perini, (NYSE: TPC) has contended that the county was to blame for the construction delays. In fact, the county aviation department lost more than a dozen claims adjudicated before a “dispute avoidance panel” established at the project’s outset to resolve disagreements between the county and its runway contractors.

In recommending approval, Coffey warned the county could have as much as $80 million in liability without a settlement.

County ‘probably could win’

Nevertheless, Commissioner Dale Holness said that in private discussions with “our staff and attorneys” he’s been assured the county “probably could win” a lawsuit against the company.

“But they weren’t sure a hundred percent because we had some issues on both sides,” Holness said.

Wexler went further. She said her “lengthy briefings” with staff bore little resemblance to Tuesday’s outcome.

“When Ms. Coffey and Mr. [Michael] Kerr [deputy county attorney] came to my office, they said, ‘Don’t worry, commissioner, we’re going to recoup, we’re going to recoup,’ ” Wexler said. “Now all of a sudden something else comes forward.”

The settlement includes $6.1 million that was approved but never paid to Tutor Perini, plus an additional $12.8 million. No commissioners asked how that figure was arrived at, and county staff did not explain.

The settlement raises the “final” contract amount to $239 million. The original contract award to Tutor Perini for design-build services was $179.9 million. Change orders approved by the county raised that figure to $226.2 million.

The settlement is with the Tutor Perini Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Joint Venture.

California-based Tutor Perini is the prime consultant for the tunnel structures that carry the expanded and elevated south runway and taxiway over U.S. 1, the Florida East Coast railroad tracks and East Perimeter Road. The venture was also responsible for related construction, including the new southbound airport exit ramp to U.S. 1.

The original contract completion date for the runway project was Feb. 22, 2014. In fact, the runway opened for air traffic in September 2014, and the project was declared “substantially complete” in January 2015.

Still, work at the airport goes on. Today, Tutor Perini is adding decorative and architectural features to the U.S. 1 tunnels – finishing work worth several million dollars. The settlement requires Tutor Perini to finish all remaining work by Aug. 31.

Friction between Tutor Perini and the county isn’t limited to the airport project.

The company is the prime contractor on the new downtown county courthouse, a project that’s a year behind schedule, but is expected to open this summer. The Sun-Sentinel reported last month that a county public works official said Tutor Perini contends the county owes it $11.3 million for extra work.

The airport and courthouse disputes also figure in the selection of a contractor to build a long-sought expansion of the Broward County Convention Center and a next-door hotel on port property. Texas-based developer Matthews Southwest Holdings was accepted for the job in April, but Matthews’ team includes Tutor Perini – a fact that did not go over well at County Hall.

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