By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
In 2009, shortly after he was named a Broward Sheriff’s Office district Employee of the Year, Jonathan Bleiweiss’ life began to unravel. He was arrested and charged with using his badge and gun to coerce sex from seven men, all undocumented immigrants.
Six years later, the ex-BSO deputy pleaded guilty to multiple counts of battery, stalking and armed false imprisonment – but that did not label him a sex offender. Bleiweiss was sentenced to five years in prison, followed by 10 years of probation.
After serving three years and nine months, the 39-year-old Bleiweiss is out on probation and keeping busy — and not in a shy way.
He’s a self-styled champion of justice. Bleiweiss is executive director and board treasurer of a new nonprofit called the Florida Justice Center.
The name could easily be confused with the Florida Justice Institute, a highly regarded public interest law firm that represents “Florida’s poor and disenfranchised,” according to its website.
The website for Bleiweiss’s outfit says, “We provide free and low-cost lawyers to those accused of crimes, assistance with bail, and connections to social services.”
One thing they have in common is that both have IRS tax-exempt status, allowing them to accept tax deductible donations.
Very different operations
Otherwise, they’re very different operations. The Miami-based Florida Justice Institute has a staff of attorneys with many court victories over four decades to its credit, notably on behalf of prisoners.
Bleiweiss’s untested Florida Justice Center promotes an ambitious project for which its three board members have little apparent background. Bleiweiss lists an MBA from the for-profit University of Phoenix. The board secretary is a real estate investor; the chairman is a software development consultant.
The Justice Center was incorporated in March of this year as Broward Law Inc. and changed its name in September. In an interview with Florida Bulldog, Bleiweiss explained the rebranding as a way to avoid confusion with law firms and law-enforcement agencies.
Florida Justice Institute executive director Dante Trevisani said he hadn’t heard about the Florida Justice Center until a reporter emailed him. “They are not affiliated with us” was his only comment.
Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, whose office did not represent Bleiweiss, said, “It sounds like ‘I’ve got a website, send me money and I’ll spend it.’”
“I have no idea what he’s bringing to the table that he wants money for,” Finkelstein said after reviewing Bleiweiss’s FJC website. “I’m not aware that he has a stellar reputation in the legal community, that you would think he’d have the right contacts” to match defendants with lawyers.
‘A bad cop’
“He’s a bad cop who should have nothing to do with justice,” the public defender said.
Finkelstein added the caveat that if Bleiweiss truly “found God, I applaud him. I’ve seen people do that and dedicate their lives to a worthy cause. But without confession there can be no redemption and, of course, no absolution.”
Bleiweiss didn’t confess to finding God or anything else during the Florida Bulldog interview. He said he was innocent, his prosecution was politically motivated, and the illegal immigrants who accused him of molesting them were promised citizenship in exchange.
He said he accepted a deal to avoid trial even though he knew he was innocent, and took a plea that doesn’t admit guilt. This so-called Alford plea also acknowledges that the prosecution has enough evidence to convict.
“I wouldn’t admit to something that I never did,” Bleiweiss said. “I’ve always believed in doing what’s right and I’m trying to keep pursuing that.”
His victims filed civil suits in Broward Circuit Court that ended in settlement. The terms aren’t publicly available.
Bleiweiss offered his version: No money changed hands. The plaintiffs’ lawyers agreed to drop their bogus lawsuits to avoid facing countersuits from his police union-supplied lawyer.
Out of prison
Why did he start the Florida Justice Center?
Bleiweiss said when he went to prison, “I saw the racial disparity that existed in there. It’s something I never fully understood until I saw it.
“Inside, they felt they never really had a chance,” he said. “I wanted to fix that, I wanted to do what I could to help these people that I met inside.”
Bleiweiss said he takes no salary from the nonprofit, “all the money is accounted for, and I’d be glad to let anybody take a look at the books.”
He said the organization’s first big fundraiser, called Home for the Holidays, will aim to bond out 100 jail inmates.
Targeting young men
When prosecutor Neva Rainford-Smith inherited the Bleiweiss case in 2013, there were 50 boxes of documents that came with it. As the new head of the Broward State Attorney’s sex crimes unit, she had to master the details.
What she learned was “horrific,” Rainford-Smith said in a recent interview. Witnesses to Bleiweiss’ activities in his Oakland Park district said he would target and stalk young men who were especially vulnerable because they knew they could be deported. Then he would pounce, force them to give him sexual gratification, walk away and repeat the offense over and over again.
Some of his victims attended the same church, Rainford-Smith said. “The priest would warn them to be aware of this police officer. They all knew to run when they saw him coming.”
The boxes held police incident reports of about 20 men, all potential witnesses if not victims. But it took an employer coming forward to kick-start BSO’s Bleiweiss investigation.
None of the victims or witnesses would ever have done that, Rainford-Smith said. “They were too afraid.”
Her description of how the civil suits were resolved suggests Bleiweiss may have lied when he said no money changed hands. Rainford-Smith said she saw a sum in one settlement agreement and learned it was standard.
“It was minimal, $3,000 apiece, and they took it and they were done.” The victims refused to testify against Bleiweiss. This was true even though they were already being deported and aiding the prosecution could have helped them get visas to stay.
“The victims didn’t know each other, but their allegations were all the same,” Rainford-Smith. “I know that he did it, but without cooperating witnesses we’re dead in the water.”
“I agonized over the case.”
BSO’s star gay deputy
The civil lawsuits also targeted Scott Israel, not personally but in his capacity at the time as sheriff of Broward County. The allegation against BSO was that the department negligently retained Bleiweiss as a deputy even after his superiors knew, or should have known, he was committing crimes.
BSO ignored Bleiweiss’ sexual misconduct because he was its star gay officer and liaison to his own community, according to William Castellanos’ 2013 complaint.
“Bleiweiss’ sexual orientation is important because…BSO sought to benefit from Bleiweiss’ service as an openly gay deputy,” the complaint says. He represented BSO at gay pride events and was “celebrated as a pioneer for gay and lesbian rights in the local community.”
“BSO sought to improve its image by holding Bleiweiss out as an example of BSO’s acceptance of members of the gay community,” the complaint says.
Israel denied the allegations.
Bleiweiss had been a BSO deputy for almost seven years when he was arrested in 2009. He was fired two years later following an internal affairs investigation.
Among charges that were sustained against him: seven counts of sexual battery and seven counts of sexual battery coerced by a government agent. Also, “conduct unbecoming an employee.”