Drug Holiday

Once a leading gay activist, CenterOne cofounder Gary Steinsmith has fallen on hard times

Alarmed that Steinsmith had missed two AA meetings, Derning and another AA friend, Bob Ullman, decided to visit Steinsmith's Hollywood apartment on September 29. "We didn't know if we were going to find him on the bathroom floor unconscious, so we tried to prepare ourselves for the worst," says Ullman. "He looked terrible. He was so out of it, talking about the end of the world."

Derning and Ullman tried unsuccessfully to check Steinsmith into Broward General Hospital. But because it was Memorial Day weekend and there was no psychiatrist to examine him, nurses told Steinsmith to make an appointment with his regular therapist for the following week. "We felt that he was OK and we might be overreacting," recalls Derning. "We didn't want to insult him." Steinsmith didn't call his therapist.

On October 3, Steinsmith disappeared. Derning filed a missing-persons report with the Hollywood Police Department. At 3 a.m. the following day, Aventura police spotted Steinsmith waving a flashlight and tugging on the doors of the Turnberry Jewish Center. "These cops pulled up and asked me what I was doing. I said, "I'm Jewish, and you're bothering me.'" The arrest report says Steinsmith used more choice words and claimed he was the messiah. Police found three Ritalin pills, a medication he's taken for years, in his pocket and charged him with possession and trespassing. He spent several days in the Miami-Dade County Jail without medication. "I couldn't remember anyone's phone number, but I just thought, well, I'm an American Express platinum-card holder, and they always say that they can get you out of any jam," he says. "So I called [AMEX] and told them to get me the hell out of this place."

Michael McElroy
Longtime friend and attorney Rae Shearn took Steinsmith's case for free
Michael McElroy
Longtime friend and attorney Rae Shearn took Steinsmith's case for free

Unaware of the arrest and assuming their friend might be hurt, Derning and Ullman called Valerie Steinsmith in Las Vegas. She already knew that something was wrong with her son. He had called her on Yom Kippur, September 26, and told her that he was selling his stock and emptying several money-market funds as an act of patriotism. ""Ma,' he says, "I'm gonna buy a helicopter,'" she recalls. "He was incredibly agitated and upset. I was talking to him two and three times a day."

While Valerie considered hiring a private detective to find her son, she received a phone call from a bondsman who helped get Gary out of jail. Feeling that she had no choice, she invoked Florida's Baker Act, which mandates that anyone deemed a threat to himself or others must undergo psychiatric supervision and evaluation. Fort Lauderdale Hospital evaluated her son and released him in three days.

The same week, she says, Fort Lauderdale attorney Norm Kent called her. "He told me that he was Gary's power of attorney now and that he was concerned about whether Gary's finances were all straight," she says. "He said that he was an old friend, and I believed him."

During several interviews over the past two months, Steinsmith has wavered on whether he regrets giving power of attorney to Kent. During his second of three weeks in Fort Lauderdale Hospital, a time in which he appeared stable and coherent, Steinsmith said, "I'm stuck in a hospital, and he's someone who offered to help me. I need Norm. I can't do anything in here, and I trust him."

The owner and publisher of the Express, a free weekly paper catering to gay readers, Kent recently wrote an open letter to readers admitting that he "should have been more disciplined" while "administering my law firm's trust account several years ago."

The short, eight-paragraph letter printed in the paper's on-line edition (which can no longer be found in its archive system) came less than a week after New Times interviewed Kent's attorney, Alvin Entin, concerning an October 29 Florida Bar ruling that Kent mismanaged the estate of Robert Patterson, who died of cancer in 1994. The letter does not detail the 1999 complaint that Patterson's widow filed with the bar asserting that Kent sold estate jewelry to a pawn shop without her knowledge, nor does it mention that she accused him of selling her husband's truck at a reduced price as well as peddling two BMW motorcycles, then depositing the proceeds into his law firm account.

According to bar records, Kent "failed to place certain funds into an estate account. Instead, he placed said funds into his own trust account." In an April 2001 hearing before the bar, the records show, Kent "admitted to writing numerous personal checks from the trust account including paying personal bills, buying season tickets to sports teams, and writing checks to cash." When the bar's independent audit found "actual shortages in the trust account," Kent testified that he performed "sloppy bookkeeping" and was at the mercy of what he called his "hedonistic spending habits." A committee of lawyers determined that he had violated eight ethical codes, saying the violations were unintentional. The attorneys recommended that he be admonished for minor misconduct, but the Florida Bar Board of Governors threw out that recommendation, urging a more serious response. The case awaits final review by the Florida Supreme Court.Entin says his client is guilty merely of being an incompetent accountant. "There's a canyon of difference between stealing and bad bookkeeping," he says. "Norm Kent did nothing intentionally wrong."

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