Jurors say Atkins-Grad shouldn't return to politics

A month after corruption acquittal, Tamarac commissioner poised for comeback

Patricia "Patte" Atkins-Grad

Suspended Tamarac City Commissioner Patricia "Patte" Atkins-Grad says hello to a supporter in the gallery during day two of her public corruption trial at the Broward County Courthouse in Ft. Lauderdale on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012. (Amy Beth Bennett, Sun Sentinel / December 5, 2012)

Two jurors who acquitted Tamarac commissioner Patricia Atkins-Grad of corruption charges last month say they had reasonable doubt about her guilt, but both had the same advice for her: Give up politics.

"I'm very upset that [Governor] Rick Scott reinstated her," juror Theresa Guthke told me. "I think she should have just gone home, thanked the Lord and said, 'Let's call it a day and move on.' I would have been very happy with my freedom."

Said juror Shirley Blands: "If I could convict a person for being stupid, she'd be at the top of my list…If I was her I wouldn't go back [to politics]. It's not for her. She should take her life in another direction."

But Atkins-Grad told me Wednesday she'll be on the dais next week for her first commission meeting since her reinstatement. She insists she is up for the job, even though she said the stress of the case caused a stroke that delayed the trial and prevented her from taking the stand. As part of her defense, her own attorney called her "clueless" and "possibly in over her head."

"The word innocent is the word innocent," Atkins-Grad, 66, said. "It's done, and I'm going back to work and that's the end of it."

If only.

Atkins-Grad's acquittal puzzled many South Floridians. At trial, she said she unwittingly got $6,300 in benefits from developers Bruce and Shawn Chait for a BMW lease down payment and an election night victory party before she voted to approve the Chaits' controversial project converting two golf courses to townhomes in 2006.

"I really think she got duped by the father and son [the Chaits] and her campaign manager [Diane Glasser, a current Tamarac commissioner]," said juror Blands, of Fort Lauderdale. "I don't think she knew what she was doing."

Blands said she "didn't believe the Chaits at all," calling Bruce Chait "a little too condescending for me." The Chaits, who cut a deal with prosecutors keeping them out of jail, say Atkins-Grad knew of the payments and that they bribed numerous local officials to get their project approved.

Said Guthke, of Pompano Beach: "I don't like corruption. Nobody on that jury likes corruption. But we're not going to put somebody in jail if there's reasonable doubt. We followed the judge's instructions and we followed the letter of the law."

The six jurors who acquitted Atkins-Grad of eight felony counts in 75 minutes apparently weren't convinced that she acted "with corrupt intent," an element of Florida's bribery and misconduct statutes for public officials. It's a high hurdle for state prosecutors to clear. In contrast, federal corruption cases often result from undercover stings or have easier elements to prove, such as filing false tax returns. That's why so many successful prosecutions of South Florida politicians — Palm Beach County commissioners and ex-Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne, for example — have come in federal court.

Atkins-Grad's return has caused a stir among some Tamarac voters, who are organizing a recall drive. This is what happens when a politician takes the "I-was-dumb-but-not-corrupt" defense. It worked with the jury, but it's not very popular with constituents.

I think she realizes she's put herself in the untenable position of constantly defending herself from her own defense.

"I'm not stupid," Atkins-Grad told me. "I'm not naïve."

Now that she has been reinstated, I asked Atkins-Grad if she might step down once she gets the back pay and legal fees she's entitled to.

"I haven't decided yet," Atkins-Grad said. "I'll take it one day at a time."

An early retirement would be the most dignified thing, for Atkins-Grad and her city.

mmayo@tribune.com, 954-356-4508

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