By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
The effort to build a new civil court building to replace the historic, but crumbling, Dade County Courthouse in downtown Miami recently took a bizarre turn that prompted a local judge to remove herself from a high-profile case involving prominent developer Russell Galbut and another local landmark, the Shelborne Hotel in Miami Beach.
Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Bailey took herself off the case on Dec. 19 after disclosing she briefly attended a meeting with Chief Judge Bertila Soto at which Galbut presented preliminary plans to build a new civil courthouse on nearby property that’s partially owned by one of his companies.
Bailey transferred the case to Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko, who like Bailey had actively campaigned to convince voters to approve a 2014 bond referendum to pay for a new $350 million courthouse.
Butchko quickly dismissed eight of 12 counts against the Shelborne Ocean Beach Hotel Condominium Association and five companies owned by Galbut, his brother Abraham and other relatives. The counts alleged civil conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duty and other wrongdoing.
“This is so shocking, you can’t believe it’s happening,” said David Kraus, a plaintiff in the Shelborne case.
Miami attorney Kevin Malek represents four-dozen Shelborne Hotel room owners who claim that Galbut’s companies and the condo association illegally tried to force them out. Malek told Florida Bulldog that his clients would appeal Butchko’s rulings, which he said severely weakened their case a week before the beginning of the Jan. 9 trial period. The trial on the remaining counts had not begun as of Thursday.
“This case is not over,” Malek said. “We will be back.”
A fair shake?
His clients, however, have little faith that they will get a fair shake as long as the case remains in Miami-Dade. Several of the unit owners, including Kraus, told Florida Bulldog they don’t believe any Miami-Dade judge can rule impartially on their case while Galbut is talking about building them a new home.
“Pretty much every judge wants a new courthouse,” said plaintiff Mark Shemel.
The Shelborne was converted into a condo hotel about a decade ago, allowing individual investors to buy rooms that are rented to tourists. In 2012, 40 of those investors sued alleging that the five Galbut entities – three of which own units in the hotel and two others that run the hotel’s operations – and the condo association broke Florida law by authorizing nearly $30 million in illegal assessments, or roughly $107,142 per room, for renovations at the Shelborne.
In court documents, the unit owners accuse Galbut of stacking the association’s board with flunkies and trying to force them out by foreclosing on their rooms because they refuse to pay the assessments. They also allege their rooms were demolished without their consent during the renovations, resulting in the City of Miami Beach revoking their certificates of occupancy until they fixed their units.
Their lawyer, Malek, sought unsuccessfully last week to remove Butchko from the case due to her advocacy for the 2014 bond referendum. She declined to recuse, while also rejecting a motion that sought to move the case outside of Miami-Dade County.
Nevertheless, Judge Butchko’s dismissal of the eight counts against the Galbut entities and the condo association was a jolt to plaintiffs in the long-running case.
“This lawsuit has been going on for years and Butchko dismissed our entire case within days,” said Kraus, who owns two rooms at the Shelborne. “How could she have reviewed so much evidence in such a short amount of time?”
Judges Bailey and Butchko declined comment through court spokeswoman Eunice Sigler, who said state law bars judges from publicly commenting on their rulings. Still, Sigler said Butchko had not been influenced by Galbut’s interest in developing a new courthouse.
“Judges rule based on the facts presented and applicable law,” Sigler said. “And their rulings can always be appealed to a higher court.”
‘A far-fetched theory’
Ron Lowy, Galbut’s personal attorney, said the 40 Shelborne owners are pursuing a “far-fetched” theory as to why Butchko dismissed the eight counts.
“I don’t believe any judge in Miami-Dade is going to give up their view of justice and doing what’s right simply because [Galbut] may in the future submit a formal proposal which may result in the construction of a new courthouse,” Lowy said. “The plaintiffs were simply unable to prove their case.”
Both Lowy and Sigler also noted that Miami-Dade County government, not the 11th judicial circuit, is the actual owner of the current courthouse and it is that body which would negotiate with Galbut for any deal for a new building.
Still, it was Bailey’s concern about a perception of possible impropriety and conflict of interest that caused her to remove herself from the Shelborne case, according to a transcript of the Dec. 14 hearing.
Bailey explained that two weeks before the court hearing, she was invited “out of the blue” to participate in a meeting with Galbut and Chief Judge Soto because she is the only local judge who is familiar with national courthouse standards and guidelines.
Three years ago, Soto, Bailey and Butchko were among a group of judges and high profile lawyers who led a public awareness campaign to tell voters that the downtown courthouse, built in 1926, had fallen into a state of disrepair and was no longer safe for the people who work there. Their goal: to convince Miami-Dade voters to approve a bond referendum to pay the nearly $400 million cost to build a new courthouse, plus repair the existing building, which was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Voters, however, rejected the referendum.
“I was very involved in public appearances with all that,” Bailey said during the Dec. 14 hearing. “Suffice it to say I am very involved in the campaign to get a new courthouse for my judges and the people I work with.”
Bailey relayed that when she showed up for the meeting with Soto, Galbut was also there. She said the plans Gabut presented were very preliminary and that she did not believe his proposal would go anywhere. However, she soon realized that his plan is gaining steam and that she needed to address it with the lawyers involved in the Shelborne litigation.
A judicial ‘epiphany’
“I had the epiphany that it might be a potential issue in this case,” Bailey said according to the transcript. “If I am a plaintiff and I read in the newspaper in a month that Russell Galbut is going to build a new courthouse, I might not be incredibly comfortable with Judge Bailey hearing my case.”
Five days later, Bailey transferred the case to Butchko. However, the plaintiffs’ don’t believe they got a fair shot in court.
“I don’t think there is a conspiracy between Galbut and Butchko,” said owner Mark Shemel said. “But she is very sympathetic about getting a new courthouse. So it’s certainly possible she is sympathetic to the defendants.”
Shemel noted that Galbut has been involved in new courthouse talks for quite some time. He cited statements made by Greenberg Traurig attorney Ron Rosengarten, who represents two of the Galbut entities.
In a Jan. 3 motion, Rosengarten admitted that Galbut has been communicating with Soto, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s office, Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin, members of the Dade Heritage Trust and retired judge Scott Silverman for more than a year about getting involved in a possible deal to develop an “expanded courthouse project.”
Silverman, who declined comment, was the court appointed mediator in the Shelborne case. Galbut’s lawyer, Lowy, said his client only met once with Silverman and that the encounter took place after the mediation had ended with an impasse.
“That bothers me,” said plaintiff Shemel. “Silverman made the plaintiffs feel doomed. The whole thing stinks.”