By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Prosecutors say they will ask a judge to imprison for 35 years ex-Broward Sheriff’s deputy and self-styled justice reformer Jonathan Bleiweiss because he violated the lenient plea deal he struck eight years ago.
“The defendant in this case received the benefits of the plea agreement he made but he has not complied with the terms of the agreement he made. He should be held accountable,” Bleiweiss prosecutor Neva Rainford-Smith told Florida Bulldog.
Broward Circuit Judge Marina Garcia-Wood has already determined that Bleiweiss breached his probation deal by failing to cooperate with an expert evaluator who might label him a sexual predator. He also must accept psychosexual treatment.
On Jan. 4 the Fourth District Court of Appeal declined to review Garcia-Wood’s decision. Now all that remains of Bleiweiss’s case is a final hearing, scheduled for April 28, and sentencing.
The former deputy was fired after his 2009 arrest on sex crime charges. An internal Broward Sheriff’s Office probe found that Bleiweiss molested seven immigrant men he stalked on his Oakland Park beat.
Yet in court, Bleiweiss admitted only to roughing up and falsely imprisoning — much like kidnapping — the men. He was sentenced to five years and served less than four at a minimum-security prison.
BLEIWEISS RETURNS TO OAKLAND PARK
The sexual assaults could have sent Bleiweiss to prison for life. But his victims were too afraid to testify and BSO helped deport five of the seven men, according to Smith.
She said she “agonized over the case.” Smith counted more than two dozen victims; the state could only even try to vindicate seven of them.
After his release Bleiweiss made his way back to Oakland Park, where he had used his badge and gun to prey upon powerless men. He opened the Florida Justice Center (FLJC), a nonprofit that solicits donations to fund legal aid, in a one-story building on Dixie Highway.
Using the FLJC as his calling card, Bleiweiss, 43, has tried to rebrand himself a champion of his fellow ex-convicts and a believer in second chances for all.
“I wanted to do what I could to help these people that I met inside,” Bleiweiss told Florida Bulldog in 2019, the year he launched the Florida Justice Center.
CHATTING UP NEXT STATE ATTORNEY
Bleiweiss cultivates influencers, even approaching Harold Pryor during his 2019-2020 campaign for Broward state attorney. The setting was a candidates’ debate at the African American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale.
Pryor, now chief county prosecutor and Smith’s boss, recalled Bleiweiss introducing himself as the leader of a criminal justice reform organization. The two chatted about justice-related topics, according to a statement from Paula McMahon, the state attorney’s spokesperson.
A tax document suggests the Florida Justice Center may be faltering financially. Revenue fell from $234,193 in 2019 to $181,082 in 2020, according to the nonprofit’s 2021 Form 990 tax filing, the most recent available. Salaries and benefits spiked from $23,488 to $116,918, even though volunteers carry most of the workload.
The center lists minimal “program service accomplishments.” The same form shows that in 2020 the FLJC helped a total of 75 people by providing 19 with criminal defense lawyers, registering to vote 24 eligible felons, making bail for 18 Black Lives Matter and other protesters and giving “reentry assistance” to 14 former inmates.
SAIZ: CENTER HELPS THOUSANDS
Curiously, the form doesn’t mention anything about paying fees and filing motions to seal and expunge arrest records. In a November email exchange with Florida Bulldog, FLJC legal director Alex Saiz indicated this program absorbs most of the center’s resources.
But there’s no obvious need for the program: The Broward State Attorney’s Office runs free sealing and expungement workshops.
Whatever the FLJC lacks in good deeds, however, it more than makes up for in hype.
Coral Gables-based Saiz told Florida Bulldog the center “helps thousands of people each year.” An “impact report” FLJC released in mid-2022 states that between March 2019 and May 2022, it connected more than 5,000 people with free legal services.
Last week Saiz agreed to answer Florida Bulldog’s questions about the Florida Justice Center. He didn’t follow through.
CAN JUSTICE CENTER OUTLAST BLEIWEISS?
The center’s most blatant marketing ploy was claiming the Florida Supreme Court designated it “the first criminal legal aid organization in Florida.” Even the Florida Bar News picked up a PR Newswire release about this from the FLJC and ran with it on Jan. 6, 2021.
In fact, the Supreme Court gave the center routine approval for law students to apply to help licensed lawyers with pro bono cases – nothing more, court spokesman Paul Flemming told Florida Bulldog.
Last week he said no applications to work with the FLJC had been filed. The “first criminal legal aid organization” honorific has disappeared from the center’s website.
In November Saiz expressed confidence that if Bleiweiss were sent away, the FLJC would soldier on.
“Florida Justice Center is an organization that helps thousands of people each year. It is not one person,” Saiz wrote. “Were Jonathan to continue as the executive director or someone else were to take over, the organizational operations would continue uninterrupted.”
BLEIWEISS SLAMS PROBATION DEAL
Bleiweiss has fought to maintain his probation status, knowing that once it’s revoked, a judge may resurrect the lengthy sentence he dodged in 2015.
Richard Merlino, his Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyer, tried to leverage Bleiweiss’s plea deal with Judge Garcia-Wood.
He argued the evaluation and treatment provision is invalid because his client didn’t plead guilty to any sex crimes. So Bleiweiss didn’t violate his probation.
Merlino filed a motion to correct the “illegal” provision.
The judge wasn’t buying any of it. She accepted Smith’s argument that because Bleiweiss was charged with sexually motivated battery, he needed evaluation and, possibly, treatment during his 10-year probation.
SMITH CALLS FOR MAXIMUM SENTENCE
Garcia-Wood was reassigned to the Broward Circuit Court civil division sometime after she denied Merlino’s motion last March. Peter Holden, a new criminal division judge, will sentence Bleiweiss.
Last week neither Merlino nor Daniel Tibbitt, Bleiweiss’s North Miami appellate lawyer, responded to an emailed request for comment.
Smith said Bleiweiss’s side refuses to negotiate over a new sentence. She plans to argue for 35 years, the longest possible prison term, at the April 28 hearing.
“It is the state’s position that the defendant is more concerned with the rehabilitation of his image than engaging in and receiving the benefit from the sex offender treatment process,” she said.
“There were a total of 25 victims,” Smith said. “Seeking the maximum sentence is the state’s way of seeking belated justice for these victims.”