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LAW : Miami Court Scandals Reveal Tarnish on the Scales of Justice

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

More than 9,000 attorneys practice law in greater Miami, and some 65 black-robed judges sit on circuit court benches here. Most of them are honest. But two major judicial scandals have shaken public confidence in the legal system and led to the creation of a blue-ribbon commission to propose changes.

The first scandal emerged from Operation Court Broom, a Justice Department sting that caught circuit court judges taking cash bribes in exchange for fixing phony criminal cases.

Next, an investigative series in the Miami Herald called “Friends of the Court” alleged that some defense lawyers made six-figure incomes by inflating the hours they worked on behalf of indigent clients.

Only a few judges and lawyers are involved in the scandals. Says Karen Gievers, president-elect of the Dade County Bar Assn., “Anything that relates to the integrity of the judicial system warrants immediate attention.”

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A look at the scandals:

THE JUDGES

The sting: After a two-year undercover investigation, the U.S. attorney last September indicted three sitting Dade County judges and one former judge on charges of taking $266,000 in cash in exchange for granting favors to fictitious drug traffickers. The case is considered second in significance only to Chicago’s Operation Greylord, which led to 92 indictments in 1983.

The mastermind: A fifth judge, Roy T. Gelber, who had pleaded guilty to two counts of racketeering, resigned from the bench and promised to testify against the others. He allegedly orchestrated the bribery scheme. Sentenced last month to 12 years in federal prison, Gelber said between sobs: “I obviously did something there is no justification or excuse (for). I will have to live with that forever.”

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The key witness: Raymond J. Takiff was once a defense lawyer for former Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega. Plagued with heart problems and tax evasion charges, Takiff volunteered to wear a microphone strapped to his chest as he handed out cash to Gelber and other judges who, it is alleged, were only too willing to fix cases involving phony defendants.

Next step: The three Dade County judges and the former judge last week got a trial date: Aug. 31.

Quote: “I never thought the judiciary was for sale. When I began to get phone calls (from judges), I was stunned. If I were John Q. Public, my faith in the judiciary would have to be shaken.”

--Raymond J. Takiff.

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Quote: “Lawyers generally have a reputation somewhere between the barracuda and pond scum, and it’s hard to tarnish that image. But judges are held in high regard by the community . . . . So it’s a hell of a shame when this kind of thing happens.”

--Milton Hirsch, past president, Miami chapter of the Florida Assn. of Criminal Defense Attorneys.

THE LAWYERS

Newspaper investigation: The Miami Herald said it found five lawyers who repeatedly won court appointments to defend indigent clients and then padded the bills they sent to the county. Some lawyers, charging at the allowable rate of $40 to $50 an hour, made six-figure incomes, the Herald reported last month.

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The solution: Judge Leonard Rivkind, chief of Florida’s 11th Judicial Circuit, announced that judges will no longer appoint lawyers. Instead, a roster of lawyers will be assigned defendants on a regular rotation.

Footnote: One former judge, Ted Mastos, reportedly billed the county $52,345 in the first month after voters unseated him from the bench in 1989. Asked about billing taxpayers for 30.5 hours in one 24-hour day, Mastos blamed sloppy bookkeeping.

Quote: “The recent allegations concerning a small number of court-appointed counsel in criminal cases is being addressed and should not of and in itself erode public confidence in our system of justice.”

--Judge Rivkind.

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