Thursday, September 18, 2008

Category Five Electoral Storm in Palm Beach County


When most people think about Florida politics, especially Palm Beach County politics, they think of corrupted elections. It was Palm Beach County's butterfly ballots that gave Bush the opportunity to steal the 2000 election. But the electoral rot there didn't end in 2000 and it Al Gore is far from the only victim. A close friend of DWT who practices law in south Florida and would prefer to remain anonymous for reasons that will soon become obvious, sent this report along today:

With all of the big news, no one seems to have noticed an increasingly scandalous judicial election in Palm Beach County. The longer I've waited to publicize it, the more the plot has thickened. At this point, so many things have happened so quickly, bringing in parties and organizations that have both personal and national implications, that its all I can do to scratch the surface. As for the national implications, suffice it to say we should all pray that Obama has already reached 270 before the Palm Beach County results are tabulated. 
On August 26th, Palm Beach County conducted a local election. At stake were a few Congressional primaries, three spirited judicial races (offices which are usually uncontested), a three way race to elect the new State Attorney, and other local offices. One race of particular interest to me was between the incumbent Circuit Court judge, Richard Wennet, and the challenger, Bill Abramson.
Each candidate is notorious in the Palm Beach County criminal defense bar and bench. Judge Wennet has served on the bench for 24 years.He is widely considered to be the meanest, most callous judge in Palm Beach County. He virtually always sentences everyone to the statutory maximum, regardless of the individual circumstances of the case. He routinely rules against the defendant and for the state, with virtually no consideration of the law or arguments, and his rulings are reversed more often than any other trial judge in Florida. Most judges do not like to be reversed. Judge Wennet does not seem to care.
Bill Abramson has been a private criminal defense attorney in Palm Beach County for many years.  He is known for acting out in court, and has been banned from several courtrooms. His courtroom antics are generally frowned upon by other criminal defense lawyers, but, many of us would find him preferable to Judge Wennet, (and the anarchist in me would love to see everyone squirm when they're forced to give him the respect due to a judge).
Those are the candidates. Now, the juicy back-story. In 2005, Mr. Abramson was conducting a trial in front of Judge Wennet. He filed a pre-trial motion which may have disposed of the case without a trial. Judge Wennet refused to hear the motion, and began interviewing potential jurors. Mr. Abramson would not stand for this, continuing to interrupt the judge as he attempted to go through the preliminary jury questionnaire. Judge Wennet ultimately filed a bar complaint against Mr. Abramson, and Mr. Abramson filed ethics complaints against the judge. More on this later…

But let's fast forward to Judge Wennet's macaca moment which occurred in 2007. From the Palm Beach Post
Wennet was secretly videotaped last year on Peanut Island by a woman on probation whom he once dated. On the videotape, posted on YouTube, the judge apparently was looking at a topless sunbather and commented on her "breasticles."

Julie Ann Domotor was arrested for illegally videotaping Wennet and violating her probation. She spent 83 days in jail before agreeing to a plea deal. Among the lawyers who represented her: Abramson.

This year, the ongoing feud continued when Mr. Abramson filed to run against Judge Wennet.  Although Judge Wennet received endorsements from most of the high-profile Palm Beach County lawyers, Abramson received some endorsements, raised some money, and turned it into a very, very close race. Closer than Bush-Gore in Palm Beach County. But, that's okay. Palm Beach County has had 8 years to get its act together, right?
On August 26th, after the initial tabulation, Abramson had beaten Wennet by 17 votes out of over 102,000 cast. This triggered an automatic recount, which concluded on Labor Day. The results of the recount put Wennet ahead by 60 votes. But there were missing ballots. Lots of them.  Three thousand four hundred seventy-eight of them.
September 4th, 2008: election officials announced that they had found 2700 of the missing ballots. Shortly, confounding everyone, again, they announced that only 957 ballots had been found. How they made this mistake is even more confusing than how they could have lost the ballots to begin with. See: 
September 5th, 2008: the County Election Canvassing Board finally gave up when a third count produced a still different result and tally. Meanwhile, the state canvassing board, chaired by Gov. Charlie Crist, refused to certify the election along with all of the others. Both candidates pledged to sue if the other was declared the winner. See: 
September 8th, 2008: Mr. Abramson filed suit before Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Francis, seeking to have the results of the recount thrown out. Judge Wennet, in keeping with his style, decided to bypass the judiciary system and go straight to the executive. He asked Gov. Crist to allow a re-vote on the November 4th election. Gov. Crist quickly said no. 
September 12th, 2008: A three-day audit revealed 102,772 ballots-- 249 more than originally counted. Just as county workers were reconciling the numbers, closing the margin to 66, Judge Francis ordered that no one be allowed to touch any ballots. Until the Judge lifts the seal, the tabulation center is being guarded by police. One concern was that the continued handling of the ballots would make it difficult for a machine to read them later. 
So… what was the problem to begin with? It would appear that there was no foul play in answering yet another question of "are they corrupt of just incompetent?"
The process for recovering the ballots was time-consuming and complex, Merriman said.

It quickly became apparent that the problem was caused by a collosal organizational failure, said Commissioner Mary McCarty. The ballots, which should be segregated by precinct, got mixed together and workers were unable to keep track of which boxes had already been run through high-speed machines during the recount and which hadn't.

McCarty said Merriman's team discovered at least six boxes of ballots that hadn't been run through the machines during the recount.

But the plot thickens even more… remember that old bar complaint? The one from 2005? The one that started this whole feud? Well, funny story… it still has not been resolved. And, guess what?  On Monday, "in an unusual move," The Florida Bar is asking the state Supreme Court to ignore the referee's recommendation, and instead suspend Mr. Abramson's license for 91 days. 
Unusual indeed. Unusual and suspect. The Florida Bar Association's "referee," Thomas Lynch, had listened to five days of testimony regarding the incident, finding fault with both parties. Specifically, he found that Mr. Abramson should have followed the Judge's orders to sit down and be quiet, and that he should not have made disparaging remarks about the Judge to the jury panel. This referee had initially determined, however, that Mr. Abramson's conduct did not rise to a level requiring disbarment, or even a license suspension. He recommended a public reprimand-- essentially a mark on his record that could have implications for future jobs, clients, or bar complaints. One reason for his recommendation was that Mr. Abramson had been motivated by a desire to zealously advocate for his client, not pad his wallet. Normally, the Florida Bar accepts the recommendations of the referees in such matters, and sanctions accordingly.
What in the world might make Mr. Abramson's case different? It couldn't be the ongoing election dispute? Or that many of Wennet's contributors sit on the Florida Bar's Board of Governors. Or that the President of the Florida Bar Association, John White, is a partner at Gerald Richman's, the firm representing Judge Wennet. Can we say conflict of interest? Sure. But for Judge Wennet, who has rarely attempted to hide his pro-state, anti-defendant bias, I suppose its business as usual. 
What, you ask, would be the electoral consequences of such an action by the Florida Bar? A very good question. If Abramson were declared the winner of the election, and his license were revoked prior to his taking office in January, no one seems to know what happens. If the Supreme Court does not rule, then no action could be taken against him until after he leaves the bench. But interestingly
The time period-- 91 rather than 90 days-- would force Abramson to take the added step of applying for reinstatement, proving that he has been rehabilitated, said attorney Kenneth Marvin, who is representing the Bar in its action against the 41-year-old who specializes in traffic cases.

If Abramson does not adequately prove that he has learned from his mistakes, another hearing would be held, delaying his reinstatement for another six to nine months, Marvin said.

"It's tough. It's tough," Marvin said of the process for reinstatement.

This is where it stands now. Forty-seven days from November 4th. Here's hoping this was a good test run to break in the new Sequoia machines-- one which everyone has learned from. Including the Obama campaign-- which should monitor every precinct in Palm Beach County, and prepare for the worst.

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At 6:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It would be nice if you pointed out that what I did, taking a videotape on a public beach of a public official, and my ex-boyfriend, Judge Wennet, did not actually violate any laws. Therefore, I was illegally imprisoned for 3 months at the hands of a corrupt system and an even more corrupt Judge. Abramson represented me for 24 hours and that was long enough for the power to be to offer me a misdemeanor which I took to get out--you'd sign anything to get out of jail--trust me. The public defender's office was supposedly representing me, but after 3 months told me, that oops! the head of the PD's office actually once represented Wennet in his divorce case and was a personal friend. Golly gee, maybe that's why they didn't depose Wennet or file a Motion to Set for 50 Days even though I requested these actions time and time again. Oh yea, the Bar didn't think any of my complaints were legitimate. I have no doubt that if I was in PBC's jurisdiction right now, they would have me locked up for just about any old reason just to keep me quiet. Florida is dirty and SOMEONE IN AMERICA NEEDS TO STOP THIS ABUSE and remind them that they did not win the Civil war. The laws in this country apply to them, as well.

At 9:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was just going from the news articles, but I've had serious suspicions regarding his case against you. I don't think it was illegal either.

At 7:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...



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