By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Larry Seidlin, the recently resigned Broward judge and would-be TV star, was once the best of friends with attorney Lawrence ¨Chris¨ Roberts. They chummed together in the courthouse every day. They dined and vacationed together.
But today they´re involved in a very public battle that could wind up in a courtroom.
The conflict began in earnest after Roberts reluctantly went on the record in New Times two weeks ago with an allegation about Seidlin, who gained notoriety after overseeing the bizarre Anna Nicole Smith hearings and recently signed a TV deal with CBS. The lawyer said the judge asked him for gifts, including a $1,000 Louis Vuitton purse for his wife´s birthday. At the time, Seidlin was regularly appointing Roberts to defend cases in his courtroom on the public´s dime.
After the story broke, the Broward State Attorney´s Office asked Governor Charlie Crist to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate the case. Local and national media outlets followed with coverage and readers and viewers chimed in with vigor and venom, often taking sides between the two former friends.
Roberts says it was his familiarity with Seidlin that led him to conclude that the judge was ¨despicable.¨ He says his old friend is cheap, manipulative, and immoral. But he says he didn´t write Seidlin off until three or four years ago, when their mutual pal, then-Broward County Chief Public Defender Alan Schreiber, told him something that turned his stomach.
According to Roberts, Schreiber said, ¨Larry found an old woman with a lot of money in this apartment in his building. I warned him not to get involved because this is going to be trouble. You know Larry.´¨
Roberts says he knew exactly what Schreiber meant: The judge was going to hustle the elderly woman out of money.
That woman was 81-year-old Barbara Kasler, a lonely millionaire living in the judge´s Fort Lauderdale condo building. Seidlin began catering to K asler´s every need, delivering three meals a day to her condo and driving her to the doctor and hair salon.
In return, Kasler, who is worth millions, has showered the Seidlin family with land, tuition money at Pine Crest School for Seidlin´s six-year-old daughter, and other gifts that total into the six figures. Kasler told me she willingly gave Seidlin the windfall, which has included privileges at the exclusive Lauderdale Yacht Club where she belongs.
¨A judge, especially one who heads the family and probate divisions [as Seidlin did], should never accept that money,¨ Roberts complains. ¨It´s financial exploitation and it´s despicable. I was finished with Seidlin when I heard about that.¨
Both men, however, remained friends with Schreiber. The financial ties between the three ran deep. Seidlin appointed Roberts to cases in his courtroom at $350 a pop, which can add up quickly under the gavel of ¨Lightning Larry.¨ Schreiber employed Seidlin´s wife, Belinda, as an investigator at about $50,000 a year. And the public defender hired Roberts to train young lawyers in his office for $10,000 a year.
It made for very cozy relationships. They dined with one another´s wives and children. They even once vacationed together in three rooms at The Breakers Hotel, the ultra-swank beachfront resort in Palm Beach.
It was Labor Day Weekend 2002, and Roberts´ wife, a travel agent, had found a bargain rate for the resort, where the cost varies between about $260 and $830 a night. All three men and their wives attended, along with Seidlin´s then-baby daughter and Roberts´ young son. They all paid their own way at the hotel, but Roberts says Seidlin found a way to get one over on both him and the hotel during the trip.
First, the judge wasn´t pleased with the caliber of the rooms, which Roberts said had a ¨nice view of the parking lot.¨ The lawyer says he watched as the judge famous for manipulating the Anna Nicole hearings tried to manipulate the front desk clerk, who happened to be a black woman.
¨Do you know who this is over here?¨ Roberts says Seidlin asked the clerk. ¨This is Alan Schreiber. He is the man responsible for electing the first African American woman to a constitutional office in Broward County.¨
Seidlin was referring to the since-disgraced Miriam Oliphant, who was elected as the county´s Supervisor of Elections in 2000 with Schreiber´s considerable support.
Roberts says the judge´s racial pandering embarrassed him. ¨I ducked my head into a corner while he was talking to her.¨
But Seidlin´s perseverance paid off -- he finagled three rooms with partial ocean views.
¨Larry´s a master schmoozer,¨ says Roberts.
Roberts soon went from embarrassed to angry with Seidlin, though. Roberts says the judge suggested they take turns paying for Schreiber´s meals, since the public defender, who would leave office in 2004 after serving six terms, had done so much for them (forget that he´d done it with tax dollars).
Roberts agreed and, later that night, plunked down a few hundred dollars at a nearby steakhouse for everybody´s dinner, he says. The next morning, they all got together for bagels at breakfast.
¨Larry vaulted across the table to get the bill,¨ Roberts recalls. ¨That was his turn to pay. I paid several hundred dollars, he paid about 28. It was the only time I remember ever seeing him reach into his pocket for anything.¨
Anecdotes about Seidlin´s frugality are legion at the courthouse. He reportedly made regular trips to a pizza joint at closing time to buy old slices for a quarter apiece, keeping them stored in his freezer. It´s said that he once put a pork chop in his sock to take home after a Florida Bar function. Things like that.
¨He´s always trying to get something for nothing,¨ Roberts says. ¨And that´s what he did with the purse and with the woman in his building. He found a golden goose. And Larry Seidlin will strangle the goose to get it to lay more eggs if he has to.¨
I called Schreiber, who is now in private law practice, but he was clearly in defensive mode. He said he didn´t think the judge had done anything wrong when it came to Kasler because she was lonely and depressed and the judge had ¨pulled her out of the doldrums.¨
So it was worth whatever large sums of money she gave him, he says.
When I brought up the trip to The Breakers, Schreiber started to clam up.
¨Both Larry and Chris are good friends of mine and I´ve been to a lot of places with them,¨ he said. ¨I remember paying my own bill, that´s all I really remember. So I can´t help you.¨ Then he hung up the phone.
So far Roberts is the only practicing lawyer to go on the record with firsthand experiences regarding corruption at the courthouse. And one reason he´s felt safe in coming forward is that he plans to move his family to northern Florida soon. In addition to the Seidlin allegations, he told WSVN-Channel 7 a few weeks ago that Judge Robert Zack borrowed $2,500 from him and didn´t pay it back.
Roberts simply shouldn´t have bought the purse for Seidlin or let Zack borrow the money. But Roberts says he felt pressured by both judges, even going so far as using the term ¨extortion¨ when it came to Seidlin´s requests.
¨It´s very hard to say no in a situation like that,¨ he says. ¨The truth is I really want to do well by my clients. But the courthouse is a cesspool and I´ve gotten completely disgusted with it. Unfortunately, nobody else has come forward.¨
The man should know the courthouse; he´s been a part of it for the past 35 years. Originally from New Jersey, he came to South Florida to attend the University of Miami and after graduating from law school started working at the State Attorney´s Office in 1972. A mere four years later he was elected as the youngest judge in Broward County history.
But Roberts had a problem. He was a binge drinker prone to doing idiotic things while under the influence. In 1981, while on a bender, he pulled over a driver he thought had cut him off. Then he held a gun on the driver while he called police -- who arrived and promptly arrested Roberts.
He went straight to rehab and resigned his judgeship. Then he got out of rehab and kept drinking, ringing up two more DUIs and burning through a few more failed stints in rehab.
Finally, on New Year´s Eve 1982, he quit drinking. By that time, though, he was broke and nearly friendless. The only person who would give him a job was former Sunrise mayor John Lomelo, who hired him as a municipal golf course maintenance man at about $200 a week.
When a Sun-Sentinel reporter heard about the judge-turned-groundskeeper, Roberts was put on the cover of Sunshine, the newspaper´s long-dead Sunday magazine. The article, titled ¨The Trials of Judge Roberts,¨ prompted several people who were dealing with alcoholism to contact him. And it gave him an idea: Get back into law and devote his practice to DUI cases.
Roberts has been doing that for about a quarter century now. ¨It´s like a little AA meeting every time somebody comes into my office,¨ he says.
After the Seidlin story broke, Roberts says he heard from his friend Schreiber, who visited him at his home in Coral Ridge last week. The two sat in the pool, Roberts says, and later had dinner together at Big Louie´s Pizza.
The former public defender asked a lot of questions, says Roberts: Had he had a drink lately? Was he on any prescription medication? C´mon, had he really not had a drink in 25 years?
Roberts became suspicious. Was Schreiber trying to dig up dirt for Seidlin?
Roberts says he doesn´t think so -- but if anyone understands the precarious nature of friendships forged at the Broward County Courthouse, it´s former Judge Lawrence ¨Chris¨ Roberts.