By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
David Custin, a political consultant and lobbyist whose Republican-heavy client list includes Gov. Ron DeSantis and Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez, is racking up sympathetic rulings in his child custody case from a judge DeSantis appointed.
Custin and his ex-wife Nanea Marcial have been fighting over custody of their two teenage sons for three years. Marcial, who works in New Hampshire now, says the boys go back and forth and stay with relatives in Key West; Custin says she’s illegally keeping them away from him.
On Friday the DeSantis appointee overseeing this brawl, Palm Beach Circuit Judge Darren Shull, signed a second order directing Florida sheriffs to pick up the boys and deliver them to Custin’s home in Kendall. Deputies must immediately “take all reasonable, necessary, and appropriate measures to effectuate this order,” Shull wrote.
The first order he issued a month ago resulted in the boys, who are 12 and 15, running away from Custin’s home. After Miami-Dade County police found and returned them to their mother, the officers alerted the Department of Children and Families (DCF), which started an investigation.
“This trauma David and Shull are inflicting on my boys is heart-crushing,” Marcial said when she received the order Friday. “My boys don’t deserve this a second time and to be forced by police?”
Marcial’s lawyers were working through the weekend to file an emergency appeal Sunday night.
WHO ASSIGNED SHULL?
Who’s responsible for putting Shull in charge of the Custin case is unclear. A June 14, 2022 order from then-Chief Justice Charles Canady named Shull to replace a different judge who’d been handling the case.
But Canady was merely granting an ordinary request from Palm Beach Chief Judge Glenn Kelley, according to Florida Supreme Court spokesman Paul Flemming. He gave Florida Bulldog a copy of a memo from Kelley to Supreme Court judicial assistant Della White specifically asking for Shull.
When Florida Bulldog contacted Kelley last week, he noted that Canady was the one who installed Shull. “As Chief Judge, I will not comment on any pending case including the assignment of that case within the Circuit,” his statement added.
The appropriate remedy for “any perceived, or real, conflict of interest” is to file a motion for disqualification with the judge in question, Kelley instructed. The standard for granting the motion is whether a party has a “reasonable” fear of unfair treatment.
Marcial has been there and done that repeatedly. Every time, Shull refused to drop the case.
Marcial, a former political operative, says politics – not any particular judge – put the Custin matter in Shull’s courtroom for a reason. “DeSantis is taking care of his guy and giving him a judge who’s gonna be favorable,” she said. “It’s insanity.”
Marcial gave Florida Bulldog access to documents in the confidential family court file and to Canady’s assignment order.
POLITICAL TIES THAT BIND
Usually judges step aside or get pushed away when they have an obvious conflict. For example, a judge’s patron has been the client of someone in a case before them, as with Shull, DeSantis and Custin.
Yet Shull wouldn’t recuse himself and he fought Marcial’s appeal. A three-judge panel of the Fourth District Court of Appeal allowed him to keep the case without explaining why in a unanimous ruling published Nov. 16, 2022. On the panel were Judges Robert Gross, Melanie May and Ed Artau.
Custin’s widely known ties to the DeSantis administration run deep. Nunez has been his client for more than a decade; Custin and his two children vacationed with Nunez’s family.
A text from Custin to one of his sons that’s quoted in court documents refers to Nunez as “Miss Jeanette” and says a recent Keys outing on her boat “reminded me of you and our trips there.”
Between March and June 2019, after she became lieutenant governor, Jeanette Nunez paid Custin’s Miami firm, DRC Consulting Inc., nearly $18,000 for consulting work on her aborted 2020 campaign for a state senate seat. She dropped that campaign to get on DeSantis’s gubernatorial ticket.
DeSantis’s successful 2018 campaign paid DRC Consulting $20,000 on Oct. 16, 2018.
DeSantis selected criminal defense lawyer Shull for Palm Beach Circuit Court in April 2022. He’d been a judge for two months when he was authorized to pick up the Custin matter from a colleague with 20 years’ experience, Judge Laura Johnson.
Palm Beach Circuit Judge Johnson had gotten the case — still pending in Broward — after Custin’s lawyer tainted the entire Broward Circuit. The winning argument for disqualification: Custin feared all Broward judges were biased against him.
A story about Johnson’s retirement this June called her “a champion for victims of domestic violence.”
MOVING TO NEW HAMPSHIRE
Marcial is an executive with American Facilities Professionals, a privately held company that provides building-related services to many commercial, governmental and residential sectors.
Previously she was chief of staff to Florida politicians including Republican U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart when he served in the state House. That’s how Marcial met Custin, who represents Republicans almost exclusively.
A Hialeah-raised grandson of Cuban immigrants, Custin runs a boutique consulting and lobbying firm in Miami. His Tallahassee clients have included, in addition to DeSantis and Nunez, former Senate President Bill Galvano and former House Speaker Jose Oliva.
In a June 26 interview with the News Service of Florida, Custin said he has no party affiliation. Since 2010, though, almost all his clients have been Republicans “because at the end of the day, I’ve got to feed my kids. It doesn’t make sense to lobby Tallahassee and be trying to run Democratic races. That’s kind of stupid, if I would do that.”
Marcial and Custin were married for eight years and had two children before their 2012 divorce in Miami. Under terms of their parenting plan Marcial is the custodial parent and Custin, who splits his time between Tallahassee and Miami, has visitation rights.
Marcial started the current court battle three years ago by filing abuse allegations in Broward, where she was living. [Florida Bulldog is not reporting the details out of respect for the parties’ and minors’ privacy.]
A year ago she sought permission to move her two sons with Custin to New Hampshire. Her employer transferred her there as part of a promotion package.
“I’m in complete limbo,” Marcial said last week. “I need to enroll the boys in school in New Hampshire by Sept. 5 so they can have a normal life.”
Custin blames Marcial for the custody standoff. He’s contesting relocation, pursuing contempt charges against her for taking the boys out of Florida, and trying to change the parenting plan so he has primary custody and she has only visitation rights.
“This is a man who doesn’t want to work together,” Marcial said. “He’s denying everything, blaming the world, blaming me. It’s about control over me, essentially.”
Custin did not respond to an email from Florida Bulldog asking for his comments. His lawyers Stacey Mullins and Laline Concepcion-Veloso also did not respond to a request for comment.
CUSTIN ROUTS FIRST JUDGE, COURT
In court documents, Custin says he only wants to be close to his sons and Marcial is thwarting him.
“The Former Husband is eager to keep this case on track and on a swift pace, particularly as he is desperately eager to address the Former Wife’s alienation [of his sons from him] that is psychologically damaging the children and precluding the Former Husband from having timesharing [visitation] with them,” Concepcion-Veloso wrote in a July 29, 2021 motion to disqualify Broward Circuit Judge Dale Cohen, the first one to catch the Custin case.
The day before, Cohen had struck an “emergency” pleading from Custin to hold Marcial in contempt, finding “this matter does not constitute an emergency.” He scheduled a July 29, 2021 Zoom hearing to consider sanctions against Custin and Concepcion-Veloso’s law firm.
That’s when Concepcion-Veloso countered aggressively. Because of an unrelated case, she wrote, Custin feared that neither Cohen nor any other Broward judge would treat him fairly.
Custin’s lawyer’s unorthodox, circuit-wide hostility argument worked. Cohen recused himself, Broward Chief Judge Jack Tuter disqualified all the judges he supervises and the case went to Johnson in West Palm Beach. So the Custin-Marcial custody quagmire slowly passed from Cohen to Johnson to Shull.
SHULL: NO GUARDIAN FOR BOYS
Last October Shull seemed to show favoritism toward Custin in his handling of Marcial’s request for a guardian ad litem who could serve as a neutral investigator and “next friend” for her sons. Marcial alleged abuse.
The guardian ad litem law, Florida Statutes 61.401, says a judge may appoint a guardian when the case is about possibly changing a parenting plan. But the judge “shall” appoint a guardian if a child abuse allegation is “well-founded,” the law says. Logically, a hearing should precede that determination.
In the Custin-Marcial case, Shull asked Custin if he agreed to having a guardian; he did not and Shull denied the request. The judge didn’t hold a hearing into Marcial’s abuse allegations.
Marcial said she couldn’t appeal that issue because, she claimed, Shull barred the court reporter she’d hired from documenting what happened when she asked for a hearing. With no court reporter, she had no record to use in an appeal.
Foiled in her efforts to have a guardian speak on behalf of her sons, Marcial asked Shull to let them speak for themselves. He also denied that request, finding Marcial failed to prove the teens have the “capacity and maturity” to testify, Shull wrote in his July 25 order.
“My children do not have a voice anywhere,” Marcial said. “How do I protect my kids?”
DCF PROBES RUNAWAY TALE
Marcial said she was encouraged when DCF opened an investigation after her sons ran away from Custin’s Kendall home. They’d been taken there on July 8 following Shull’s first pick-up order.
Within hours the brothers called their mother to say they were on the run; they asked her to come get them, Marcial said. Both parents contacted the Miami-Dade Police Department.
Marcial credits her locator app for finding the teens, who’d been hiding in the bushes near a neighbor’s house watching their father search for them, according to the officers’ “domestic disturbance” report.
“Thank God nothing happened to them,” Marcial said.
The July 9 police report states the officers returned the boys to their mother and told the parents they would share their observations with DCF for further investigation. The agency’s report is due by Sept. 13, Marcial said.
In the meantime she’s waiting for the ruling that will determine her sons’ immediate future. Shull turned down her relocation request but she’s trying for reconsideration.
“All I’m asking for is a fair judge,” Marcial said, “and I can’t get that.”