By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
The Florida Justice Center operates out of a low-rise on Dixie Highway in Oakland Park and appears to be flourishing—at least on paper.
This is familiar territory to the center’s founder and executive director, former Broward Sheriff’s Office deputy and ex-convict Jonathan Bleiweiss.
His office is in the district he once patrolled, where he misused his badge and gun to arrest, without lawful cause, young male illegal immigrants.
Prosecutors wanted Bleiweiss to answer for the crimes that victims and witnesses said they suffered and saw: He stalked, terrorized and coerced these men into demeaning sexual acts.
But their main case, with a potential life sentence, fell apart when five of seven alleged victims were deported. Prosecutors said crucial witnesses could not get past the fear of facing Bleiweiss in court.
PROSECUTOR ‘AGONIZED’ ABOUT CASE
Several of the abused men filed civil lawsuits against Bleiweiss and BSO, and accepted token settlements before they were deported, prosecutor Neva Rainford-Smith told Florida Bulldog in 2019.
“I agonized over the case,” Smith said at the time. “I know that he did it but without cooperating witnesses, we’re dead in the water.
“The victims didn’t know each other but their allegations were all the same,” she said.
Victim information is confidential. Still, an Aug. 21, 2014 defense motion that challenged a search of Bleiweiss’s house revealed his routine as alleged by victims and witnesses:
“M.C.” and his brother “J.C.” were on bicycles when Bleiweiss approached them, flashed his emergency lights and stopped M.C. “While [Bleiweiss was] inquiring as to M.C.’s relationship status,” the motion says, J.C. rode up to them. Bleiweiss sent him away.
REPEAT ENCOUNTERS AND NOTATIONS
Then Bleiweiss forced M.C. into the back of his patrol car and molested him.
A few days later, Bleiweiss spotted M.C. on a bicycle, stopped him and administered a sobriety test. The deputy dimmed his emergency lights and the bicycle light, had M.C. lean against the patrol car as if for a pat-down, and molested him again.
Afterward Bleiweiss handcuffed M.C. and put him in the back of the patrol car while he wrote something on a piece of paper. Months later, he pulled over another man near the River Oaks Apartments and made him write his name on a notepad.
Investigators tried but apparently failed to locate the notepad, probably figuring Bleiweiss documented his conquests.
Now, in a sense, Bleiweiss has returned to the scene of the alleged crime – River Oaks is at 2929 N. Dixie Highway, five blocks from the Florida Justice Center that Bleiweiss founded and runs.
PLEA GAVE BLEIWEISS SECOND CHANCE
These days Smith can’t talk about the case because it’s back on again. If prosecutors convince the Fourth District Court of Appeal that Bleiweiss violated the terms of his probation, he’ll most likely go back to prison.
Asked for his comments, Bleiweiss referred a Florida Bulldog reporter to Alex Saiz, legal director of the Florida Justice Center. “Unfortunately, I am swamped working to ensure our clients’ freedoms are being preserved,” Bleiweiss wrote in an email.
“I believe in second chances,” Saiz, who has a solo law practice in Coral Gables, wrote about his association with Bleiweiss. “He is genuine in his desire to help the community, and all of his actions at the FLJC show this.”
“Mr. Bleiweiss served his sentence and decided to give back to the community through creating an organization that helps people. This is something that should be appreciated,” Saiz wrote.
In 2015 Bleiweiss’s criminal defense lawyer, Alvin Entin, negotiated a highly favorable plea deal — the ex-deputy wouldn’t even have to explain all those bad arrests. He pleaded no contest to 16 counts of false imprisonment, a third-degree felony, plus numerous counts of misdemeanor battery and stalking. Entin died in 2020.
JUDGE UPHOLDS PROBATION DEAL
Bleiweiss also agreed to a post-release psychosexual evaluation and treatment as a special condition of his 10-year probation. When he failed to comply, he was arrested in February and charged with a probation violation.
In Broward Circuit Court, Bleiweiss’s lawyer, Richard Merlino, argued that the special condition was “invalid” because his client didn’t plead guilty to any sex crimes –therefore, no violation. Merlino filed a motion to correct Bleiweiss’s “illegal sentence.”
Judge Marina Garcia-Wood denied Merlino’s motion on March 4.
She endorsed the prosecution’s reasoning that Bleiweiss must submit to psychosexual evaluation and treatment because he was charged with a sexually motivated battery. And it was part of the deal he made to avoid more serious charges and punishment.
Bleiweiss appealed to the Fourth District, where his case is pending. His appellate lawyer, Daniel Tibbitt, did not respond to questions from Florida Bulldog.
FROM PRISON TO ‘HOLISTIC’ NONPROFIT
In the end, Bleiweiss’s refusal to accept court-ordered treatment could land him back in prison for a longer stretch. Both his liberty and his Florida Justice Center are at risk.
Following his 2015 plea bargain, Bleiweiss served three years and nine months of a five-year sentence at a minimum-security prison.
In 2019, soon after his release, he launched a nonprofit offering “holistic” legal, mental health and social services to poor people who get caught up in the criminal justice system.
He can relate, Bleiweiss assures potential clients and donors who read his bio on the Florida Justice Center website. Once upon a time he “found himself in handcuffs,” the bio states. It doesn’t say why.
“Just like tens of thousands of Floridians each year, he was forced to accept a deal for a crime he did not commit due to a common prosecutorial practice called overcharging,” the website says.
(Fact check: Through his 2015 plea, Bleiweiss admitted committing multiple crimes.)
In a 2019 interview with Florida Bulldog, Bleiweiss blamed political intrigue for his downfall.
MONEY FLOWS TO LEGAL AID CENTER
Yet the politics of diversity worked in his favor. BSO celebrated the openly gay Bleiweiss, liaison to the LGBTQ community. He represented the department at pride parades; he was hailed for boosting gay and lesbian rights.
His legal aid center has an ambitious-sounding goal: “To reduce the number of justice-involved people in Florida.” The quote is from the center’s profile for the charity reviewer GuideStar, which awarded the FLJC a Gold Seal for financial transparency.
Bleiweiss’s salary has nearly doubled since 2020, when it was $23,488, according to the center’s most recent federal tax Form 990. As of Jan. 31, 2022 the center was paying him $3,750 a month, or $45,000 a year, for part-time work, a Florida Department of Corrections affidavit says.
The center claims 222 volunteers, more than a dozen outside lawyers standing by to accept pro bono cases, a legal director and a full-time salaried staff attorney. One of Bleiweiss’s own lawyers, Richard Merlino, is identified on the nonprofit’s website as a contributor.
The FLJC’s 990 tax form for 2020 shows that it received $176,376 more in donations than the $57,816 it paid out for expenses.
TRYING TO SHORTEN PROBATION
But behind the facade of a thriving nonprofit start-up, the 41-year-old Bleiweiss is pursuing an urgent personal agenda. Before his arrest for the probation violation, he lobbied to end his probation early. Now he’s scrambling to stay out of prison.
Central to his efforts is scrubbing his image, courtesy of the Florida Justice Center.
At a Dec. 1, 2021 hearing on Bleiweiss’s motion to end his 10-year probation after three years, two lawyers associated with the center testified on his behalf.
Melba Pearson, vice chair of the board and a former prosecutor with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, said, “I’ve never seen someone with so much drive to give back to the community,” according to a hearing transcript.
Saiz said he was impressed that Bleiweiss volunteered information about his criminal past before Saiz accepted the job of legal director. Smith took that as an opportunity to remind Judge Garcia-Wood what happened much earlier in the case.
“And did he tell you the reason he was able to negotiate a plea to a non-sex offense was because the sheriff’s office … systematically rounded up those victims and deported them?” she asked Saiz.
“I don’t think he told me that specifically,” he responded.
LOTS OF DISAPPEARING ARRESTS
Garcia-Wood denied the request to put an early end to Bleiweiss’s probation.
In an interview conducted through emails, Saiz indicated to Florida Bulldog that many of the center’s resources are devoted to paying fees and filing motions to seal and expunge arrest records.
“Sealing and expungement is especially important as it allows folks to get jobs/better jobs and housing, and results in safer and more stable communities,” he wrote.
In 2020, when the FLJC petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to recognize it as a legal aid organization, the center listed 14 lawyers who stood ready to take on pro bono cases.
However, a random sample of those lawyers did not express any desire to work with the center again.
Two of them, Tamara Felton-Howard of St. Petersburg and Richard Eagles of Coral Springs, confirmed each handled and won an FLJC case, but said they didn’t know their names were on the Supreme Court petition.
Felton-Howard told Florida Bulldog she was “disappointed” to learn about Bleiweiss’s background. “I don’t really practice criminal law anymore,” she wrote in an email.
“I have transitioned away from practicing criminal defense,” Eagles wrote in an email. He declined to comment about Bleiweiss.
Another lawyer on the list, Sanite Ermat of Fort Lauderdale, said in a recorded phone message, “At this time, I’m not handling any legal matters.”
And Jessenia Rosales, a Tampa lawyer who chairs the FLJC board, did not return a phone call from Florida Bulldog seeking comment about her pro bono work and the center.
FLJC OVERHYPES SUPREMES’ NOD
The Florida Justice Center got a one-page letter from the Supreme Court clerk granting it “organizational approval” on Dec. 1, 2020.
Now it markets itself as “the first and only legal aid organization in the state authorized to practice criminal law.”
Court spokesman Paul Flemming provided a spin check. Legal aid organizations are encouraged because they help increase the pool of volunteers who represent indigent clients, he explained.
“All [the approval] does is set up a structure for a practicing attorney to supervise law students who then can provide pro bono legal services,” Flemming said. Each student must qualify for certification.
“That does not constitute a seal of approval for everything that this nonprofit corporation does,” he added.