By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
A South Miami-Dade couple launched a smear campaign with the assistance of mega-lobbyist Ron Book to destroy the reputation of a prominent businessman accused by their six-year-old daughter of molesting her at a pool party, according to a recently filed lawsuit.
Jozef Opdeweegh has denied any wrongdoing. And he and his wife, Jacqueline Miguel, are suing spouses Jonathan and Melissa Cauff and Stuart Cauff, the little girl’s grandfather, for defamation with express malice and neglect in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. The Feb. 14 complaint does not name Book as a defendant, but the document identifies him as a family spokesman who helped fuel substantial media coverage about the alleged sexual assault, which occurred on May 31, 2017.
The complaint cites Book’s remarks to Local 10 News after Opdeweegh’s Aug. 16, 2017 bond hearing that “clearly there was an inappropriate touching.”
In a phone interview, Book dismissed the lawsuit as a meritless attempt to harass and intimidate the Cauffs from continuing to speak up about what Opdeweegh allegedly did to the 6-year-old girl. “This lawsuit is meant to stop them from continuing to make their case,” Book said. “It is re-victimizing the victim and it creates a chilling effect.”
Attempts to reach Jonathan and Melissa Cauff were unsuccessful. Calls to publicly listed phone numbers under their names indicated they were disconnected. Stuart Cauff declined to comment. Opdeweegh and Miguel are represented by Barry Richard, a Greenberg Traurig shareholder who represented George W. Bush in the Florida Gore versus Bush legal battle that determined the presidency in 2000. Richard declined to comment.
On his personal website, Opdeweegh touts his 17-year experience as a past chief executive, chairman and board member of private and public global companies with a combined 17,000 employees and $300 million in earnings. His most recent CEO gig was with Premier Farnell, a global technology manufacturer and distributor based in London from April to November 2016. Since then, he has worked as business consultant for private equity funds.
Opdeweegh is suing for damages for the loss of his good reputation, loss of consulting gigs with multiple private-equity companies and loss of an opportunity to become the chief executive of a global corporation.
A pool party
According to a Miami-Dade police report, Opdeweegh, Miguel and their two children attended a pool party hosted by the Cauffs at their Glenvar Heights apartment complex at 8150 SW 72nd Ave. The report states Jonathan Cauff and Miguel are childhood friends and their kids attend the same classes at Gulliver Academy. At some point, Opdeweegh was in the water with the children, including Jonathan and Melissa Cauff’s daughter. Her parents were not in the pool.
In an interview with a Miami-Dade police detective two months after the incident, Jonathan Cauff said his daughter got out of the pool and ran over to the cabanas where he was sitting. “She leaned over, whispered in his ear and stated, ‘Mr. Opdeweegh just touched my pipi,’ ” the police report states. She repeated the accusation two more times to her father and then showed her mother how Opdeweegh rubbed his hands over the portion of her bathing suit covering her vagina.
The couple decided to act as if nothing untoward had happened and continued to party so as not to create a scene and cause more distress for their daughter, “who appeared nervous and afraid,” Jonathan Cauff told the investigator.
Two days later, on June 2, the Cauffs reported the alleged molestation to the Department of Children & Families and scheduled an appointment with a therapist because their daughter was crying, sad and scared following the incident, per Jonathan Cauff’s statement. DCF reported the child’s accusations against Opdeweegh to the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office and county police.
On June 22, the little girl participated in a forensic interview at Kristi House, a non-profit affiliated with the state attorney’s office that assists child sex abuse victims. She showed investigators how Opdeweegh allegedly touched her vagina in an “up/down motion.”
Melissa Cauff also recounted similar details about the incident with detectives and mentioned how in 2015 she read her daughter a children’s book called “Lauren’s Kingdom” in which the author was sexually abused as a child by a nanny.
The book was written by Broward State Sen. Lauren Book, daughter of Ron Book and founder and CEO of Lauren’s Kids, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering sexually victimized children and their family members to report their attackers to the proper authorities. Her father, who represents dozens of private companies and local governments in Tallahassee, is chairman of Lauren’s Kids.
Florida funnels millions to Lauren’s Kids
Since 2012, the Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott have showered Lauren’s Kids with more than $10 million in taxpayer funding to develop a curriculum about child sex abuse reporting for elementary, middle and high school students. The program is optional and not every public school district is required to teach it.
During the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions, legislators approved a combined $3 million in funding for Lauren’s Kids knowing the non-profit is owned and operated by one of their colleagues, who was elected in 2016. Sen. Book, who earns a $135,000-a-year-salary as Lauren’s Kids top officer, has also voted in favor of the state appropriations bills knowing it includes line items for Lauren’s Kids.
In previous interviews, she told Florida Bulldog that she doesn’t have a conflict because the funding will not personally benefit her. In addition, she said, she resigned from the board of directors of the foundation that raises money for Lauren’s Kids and her salary was restructured so that her compensation is not funded with public dollars.
According to Opdeweegh’s lawsuit, he fully cooperated with detectives after they informed him that he was being investigated on July 27. A month later, on Aug. 14, he voluntarily surrendered and was charged with one felony count of lewd and lascivious molestation of a child. He was freed on a $300,000 bond two days later.
Between June 1 and Aug. 14, the Cauffs met with persons acting as their agents to discuss a plan of action designed to destroy the reputation of Jozef Opdeweegh, the lawsuit alleges.
“The Cauffs, or their agents acting with their knowledge and approval, caused substantial media attendance at the August 16, 2017 bond hearing,” the lawsuit claims. “As a result, there was widespread media coverage of the bond hearing, including video clips of Jozef Opdeweegh in prison uniform, and of a press conference at which Ron Book, a spokesman for the Cauffs, stated that ‘clearly there was an inappropriate touching.'”
The lawsuit also contains excerpts of alleged text messages between Jonathan and Stuart Cauff lauding the lobbyist’s handling of the media. “Ron Book was fantastic,” Stuart Cauff wrote. “The total report makes it appear to have gone exactly as desired.” To which Jonathan Cauff responded: “Ron is amazing. Thank God he was there. They painted [Opdeweegh] so guilty.”
Opdeweegh, in his lawsuit, alleges the text messages “reflect a strong desire and intention to hurt the Opdeweeghs rather than seeing fairness and justice served, and to use the news media to do so.”
Cauffs refused to cooperate?
The complaint also claims the Cauffs refused to cooperate with police investigators, including making a controlled telephone call to Opdeweegh to see if he could catch his daughter’s alleged molester in a lie. “The purpose of the call was the possibility that Jozef Opdeweegh’s response would assist in determining the likelihood of guilt,” the lawsuit claims.
On Sept. 20, an assistant state attorney told the Cauffs that the office was not going to prosecute Opdeweegh due to a lack of corroborating evidence, the lawsuit states. Eight days later, the case was closed with no action taken against Opdeweegh.
Book told Florida Bulldog that sexual abuse cases often don’t go to trial because of the difficulty proving the alleged incident took place when there are no eyewitnesses or other corroborating evidence. “This gentleman was charged because police believe he did it and the judge found probable cause,” he said. “The prosecutors decided to dismiss the case because they felt they couldn’t get a conviction. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
Book also admonished Opdeweegh’s lawyer, Richard, for mentioning his name in the complaint. “I think it’s unfair,” Book said. “We stand up for victims’ rights on a regular basis. Somehow the plaintiff and Richard felt that was somewhat material.”
He said he did not speak at the press conference as a legal representative for the Cauffs. “I got out in front because the press wanted someone from the family to say something,” Book recalled.
Nevertheless, Book said he and Lauren’s Kids have no regrets getting involved with the Cauffs. “This isn’t going to deter us from standing up for victims and their families,” he said. “Lawyers for the gentleman criticized the Cauff family for teaching their child to speak up until someone hears her voice. To do otherwise is wrong, period.”