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Condomania

In the courtroom of Judge Robert W. Lee sit the past six presidents of the International Village Association. They are all gray-haired and a bit stoop-shouldered. They are mostly transplanted Jewish northerners. They all talk a tad too loud. They have a combined age of close to 450. Yet all appear ready for a fight.

One of the men sits alone. Scott Samuels, the current president of the International Village Association, which oversees 832 condominium units in Lauderhill, is on the stand. The 74-year-old is on trial for the unlikely charge of battery. The five other condo politicos and their wives are here in hopes of seeing him sent to the slammer. On September 5, 1997, Samuels attacked one of the past presidents, Charles Fagelbaum, age 75, with mace.

The long-simmering feud between the two irascible World War II veterans escalated to physical violence after a seemingly innocuous episode in which Fagelbaum refused to let Samuels listen for a second time to a tape of a board meeting. Fagelbaum afterward spent three days in the hospital with heart problems.

In a calm, defiant voice, Samuels explains to the jury that he wielded the can of mace only in self-defense after being assaulted by an armed and dangerous Fagelbaum. "He picked up my umbrella... and he started jabbing me in the abdomen," Samuels recounts, demonstrating with his fingers the prods of the weapon. "In order to make him stop attacking me, I sprayed him."

It's a scene straight out of Seinfeld (or as the prosecutor puts it in her closing argument, "a Seinfeld episode from hell"), but the potential consequences are very real: The maximum penalty for battery is one year in prison.

The two-day trial features enough name-calling and whispered charges from the gallery of International Village observers to make a Broward County Commission meeting look benign. Samuels is at various times referred to by Fagelbaum partisans as "vicious," an "animal," and a "dictator." And he is accused of inflicting on his own body the umbrella wounds that figure prominently in the case. Seldom has the nasty backstabbing and petty grandstanding of South Florida condominium politics been so baldly on display.

At the courthouse on this Tuesday in early January, the antipathy between the two camps is palpable. As the interested parties wait outside the courtroom, Samuels grows agitated at the close proximity of jurors to Fagelbaum's vocal supporters. "I don't believe it," Samuels practically shouts into his cell phone, as he paces the courthouse hallway. "They're standing right next to them talking. They're gonna cause a mistrial!" A bemused bailiff is soon summoned and the jury is sequestered until the trial gets under way.

A moment later the milky-haired and mustachioed Fagelbaum is sweet-talking a defense witness. He calls over to Robert Clauss, a burly landscaping contractor who was working at International Village on the day of the incident and who is about to take the stand. Fagelbaum puts his arm around the man as they talk quietly. Stuart Smith, Samuels' lawyer, is not amused. "You're not supposed to be talking with witnesses," he barks.

It's the same story inside the courtroom. On one side of the gallery sit the supporters of Fagelbaum. On the other side sit Samuels' backers. The two camps do not intermingle. They insult each other audibly. Mrs. Fagelbaum passes notes to the prosecutor and claims that one of the witnesses lied on the stand.

The civil war at International Village goes back at least to 1995. Samuels and Fagelbaum were allies at the time and ran for the board of directors on a platform of change. The old guard had to go, they claimed; Fagelbaum and Samuels represented the not-quite-as-old guard. But by the end of 1996, the political allies had become bitter enemies. Samuels attempted to sabotage Fagelbaum's campaign for board president that year. Fagelbaum won anyway.

Relations continued to deteriorate. Samuels relentlessly attacked the association -- and in particular its president -- for purported corrupt practices, such as signing off on checks without the approval of the full board and not giving sufficient notice when announcing board meetings. He also accused Fagelbaum of physically assaulting him on at least one occasion.

Fagelbaum says that he received more than 150 letters from Samuels in 1997 charging wrongdoing. One such letter, dated July 21 and labeled "Memo No. 087," alleges that Fagelbaum illegally signed a contract without board consent for $51,944.76 to purchase equipment. At other times during the year, Samuels accused board members of engaging in illegal insider deals, wasteful spending, and various other types of malfeasance.

"Whoever didn't agree with him," Fagelbaum says, "he would demean, insult."
According to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulations, which is responsible for regulating condominiums, Samuels has filed 29 complaints against the International Village Association over the last three years. In the last two years, Fagelbaum has sent four such complaints.

The result of all these accusations? "Not a single complaint was substantiated," says David Fountain, a spokesman for the department.

Robert Kaye, a lawyer who represents Samuels and the International Village Association, as well as many other condominium boards, says that disputes such as this one are not uncommon. "In 12 years I've seen more than enough physical altercations between elderly board members," he says.

About the only aspect of the September 5, 1997, mace incident upon which every witness agrees is the weather: It was raining. According to the testimonies of Samuels and Fagelbaum, the dispute erupted in the association's office over the tape of the board meeting. Samuels had not been in attendance and went to the office to listen to the tape on headphones. After hearing the recording once, Samuels wanted to listen again. Fagelbaum angrily rebuffed him, so Samuels decided to take the tape home.

At this point the stories of the two septuagenarians diverge widely. Samuels charges that Fagelbaum began screaming obscenities at him and then hit him in the face. He says that Fagelbaum then proceeded to attack him with an umbrella, repeatedly jabbing him in the stomach area and causing bruises that lasted for months. Then Samuels says he reached for the mace in his coat pocket and warned Fagelbaum that he would not hesitate to use it. When Fagelbaum did not desist in his attack, Samuels sprayed him with mace.

Fagelbaum, of course, tells the story a bit differently. He says that Samuels attacked him without provocation. Fagelbaum claims that he never touched an umbrella, let alone jabbed someone with one.

Bolstering Fagelbaum's story for the prosecution is a purported eyewitness, 78-year-old Arthur Kahn. Kahn's testimony is weakened, however, by his insistence that although he was in the room with Fagelbaum and Samuels, he did not actually see the mace sprayed. The defense in turn brings forth a host of witnesses who testify that they never saw Kahn at the offices on the day of the attack.

The testimony throughout features exchanges more likely to be overheard waiting in line for the early-bird special. When Estelle Samuels, Scott's wife of 53 years, takes the stand, she is questioned about the photographs of her husband that have been entered into evidence. The pictures, which she says were taken the day of the attack, show bruises on his upper body supposedly from the umbrella attack.

"Had you seen Scott bare-chested earlier that day?" Smith asks.
"I always see Scott bare-chested," Mrs. Samuels replies. "He sleeps in his shorts."

"That's a little more information than we needed to know Mrs. Samuels," Smith says.

Samuels is ultimately acquitted of the charge after two and a half hours of deliberation by the six-member jury. The pictures of Samuels' bruises, as well as the muddle-headed testimony of Arthur Kahn, apparently placed doubt into the minds of the jury as to who the aggressor was in this case.

But regardless of the outcome of the trial, there is no victor in Judge Lee's courtroom. The only triumph is petty bickering over common sense. And neither party seems to have taken much away from the experience. Samuels' lawyers say that their client is now exploring the possibility of suing Fagelbaum in civil court.

For his part Fagelbaum does not seem ready to retire gracefully either. After the trial he called the verdict a "rape of justice" and now says that his only regret is that Samuels was not found guilty.

"This was a very nice place to live," Fagelbaum sulks, "until he came along."

Contact Paul Demko at his e-mail address:
Paul_Demko@newtimesbpb.com


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