Witness for the Defense

When a man bites City Hall in court, our columnist takes the stand

I testified in the Palm Beach County Courthouse last week about a column I wrote. I did so voluntarily, despite the fact that I have fought hard — even risked jail time — many times to keep from taking the stand in the past.

Now, do you hear that sound off in the distance? It's a bunch of veteran newspaper pros all groaning in unison. They're the purists, and to them a reporter willfully taking the stand is a journalistic crime in their eyes, no matter what the circumstances.

But before someone tries to drown me in my own ink, listen to the facts of the extraordinary and groundbreaking case for which I testified, The City of Riviera Beach vs. Fane Lozman. The houseboat-living Lozman, a political activist, was fighting eviction from Slip 452 at the Riviera Beach Municipal Marina. The city's pretense for kicking Lozman off the dock was that his ten-pound wiener dog, Lady, had menaced some of the marina's residents.

The dog had never hurt anyone and was always leashed, and Lozman said the city really wanted him to sail off into the sunset because of his hobby of dogging public officials. Before his eviction, Lozman was holding up the city's $2.4 billion redevelopment plan — anchored by billionaire Miami Dolphins owner H. Wayne Huizenga — with a lawsuit that he filed against the city.

The activist fought the redevelopment after learning that the marina he called home would be taken over by the master developer, Viking Harbor Inlet Properties. Fearing Viking would make it unaffordable for everybody but the megarich, Lozman wanted to keep it in public hands. He also didn't like the fact that the city was subverting recently established state law, championed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, that made it illegal for cities to use eminent domain to profit developers.

Lozman, a 45-year-old, self-made millionaire with time on his hands, was also a regular at City Hall meetings, where he brought up the foibles and ethical deficiencies of elected officials, his favorite target being Mayor Michael Brown (who incidentally has plenty of foibles and ethical deficiencies to point out [see "Who Crowned Michael Brown?" August 17]).

I first visited the thorn in the city's side on August 1 last year, and it wasn't long after arriving on the sun-spackled dock that it became evident how serious the conflict had become between Lozman and his landlord, the city.

In my presence, Rivieria Beach Assistant Police Chief David Harris nearly arrested Lozman for doing what then-marina Director George Carter deemed unauthorized work on his houseboat. At one point, Harris told Lozman he wanted to "slap the cuffs" on him.

This all because Lozman was replacing double doors on his craft to shore it up against a coming storm, Hurricane Ernesto.

Ultimately, Harris calmed down and told Lozman he had one day to finish the work. Lozman believes that if I hadn't been there — that is, a reporter with a notebook — he would have seen the inside of a jail cell that day.

I wrote a column about what I'd seen titled "Witness for the Intimidation" (having no idea how literal that title would become). The newspaper hit the streets on August 8. The very next day, Lozman got an eviction letter from Carter, a longtime city employee and admitted Brown friend, stating that he was being booted from the slip because his wiener dog had been spotted without a muzzle.

In short, Carter deemed that the bitch — an animal Carter admitted in the eviction letter had never bitten anyone — be booted from the marina. "City Bites Dog" was the headline over the column I did on that.

Lozman began fighting the eviction in court, claiming that the city was retaliating against his political activity and violating his First Amendment rights. Because he could find no attorney willing to take the case, he represented himself, winging it as he went along.

As the case dragged on, city officials finally did have the cuffs slapped on Lozman. Upon their order, police arrested him during a City Commission meeting November 15. What did he do? Speak his mind during his allotted time during public comments. He was literally dragged to jail and charged with disorderly conduct and trespassing.

No surprise that the charges have since been dropped. Riviera Beach officials apparently forgot they were in the United States of America instead of, say, Kazakhstan (which really is a horribly oppressive country, Borat notwithstanding).

Near the same time, the city abandoned its plan to use eminent domain to benefit Viking, Huizenga and other private developers as part of the $2.4 billion plan. Lozman counted that as a victory.

Two weeks ago, he called me to say his case was going to the jury, which would decide if the city's eviction violated his First Amendment rights. He asked me if I would testify about my articles.

I've always avoided testifying before a jury, although prosecutors have regularly tried to force me to do so. In those cases, interviews with suspected criminals piqued their interest. A couple of chats that got me subpoenaed involved a drunk driver who'd killed three people and a funeral home director who left a dozen corpses to rot in a storage shed. I'm under subpoena at this very moment from the Broward State Attorney's Office in a Mafia case involving alleged Bonanno crime family capo Gerard Chilli. New Times and I are fighting it.

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