Paying the Race Card
Norman Ganz didn't wait for an introduction before launching into an exasperated monologue on the phone. All he knew was that a news reporter was on the other end of the line.
"I am not a bad person! I work for a living and I help people. I don't steal from people. They pay because there is discrimination. I'm sorry, but I'm having a very, very difficult time."
This didn't sound like a lawyer who had just hours before won a $1.3 million settlement in a discrimination lawsuit against Broward County Clerk of Courts Robert E. Lockwood.
Ganz had his reasons to sound desperate. He was under investigation for exploitative tactics -- read: blackmail -- to get cash settlements and was getting bashed by the media. His chief paralegal, Brian Nieman, was exposed as a felon, with insurance fraud convictions under his belt.
But if Ganz was bruised, his opponent, Lockwood, was broken. As a result of the settlement, the political career of the 76-year-old Democrat was all but ruined.
And Ganz is still stomping through the federal courts, kicking up mud.
Next to be stepped on? The Broward County Sheriff's Office (BSO).
Ganz is looking for another big settlement in his racial discrimination suit against BSO. A seven-figure cash payoff isn't likely, however, as the sheriff's office isn't nearly as vulnerable as the clerk of courts, and the number of alleged victims, 3, is roughly a tenth of the 29 complaining against Lockwood.
While the question of how much water the lawsuit holds is difficult to answer, the BSO case definitely isn't lacking in dirt. It opens a window to brutality in the jail, spousal abuse charges among BSO employees, and petty infighting among deputies. And it has raised serious ethical questions about Charles Whitelock, the sheriff's outgoing chief counsel.
One plaintiff is Gary McClinton, who was fired in 1994 after he was charged by Pompano Beach police with domestic violence against his wife. McClinton was never convicted (his wife changed her story), but some unexplained bruises remained a mystery. McClinton contends he was fired rather than ordered to counseling because he is black. Ganz's complaint names two white deputies, Brad Turner and Andrew Pentecost, who were also charged with domestic violence but not fired.
There's problem with that declaration, however: Turner and Pentecost were, in fact, both fired for domestic violence. "We're not perfect," Ganz explains.
While McClinton claims that racism is rampant among deputies, another plaintiff, Kenneth Phillips, said he never saw any outright racism in his three years as a corrections deputy. But he wonders if racism played a role in his 1994 termination. Phillips, who had a sparkling record as a deputy, was fired after an incident in which a handcuffed inmate was beaten. Phillips didn't hit the inmate. In fact, he asked another guard not to hit him.
What got Phillips into trouble is that investigators didn't believe him when he said he didn't see his sergeant, Frank Willard, take the inmate into a closet for an "attitude adjustment." Willard, who is white, was fired for the incident, along with two other deputies, one white, the other black. Phillips was given a ten-day suspension without pay for his alleged untruths. He wouldn't accept that punishment and was fired.
Even BSO has conceded that Phillips didn't deserve the firing: He was offered his job back but didn't accept it because they refused to pay his lost wages.
Phillips said he was recruited to participate in the discrimination lawsuit by Rena Coleman, the third plaintiff in the case. Coleman joined the force in 1985 and quickly rose to the rank of sergeant. She was demoted to deputy in 1991 after a particularly ugly incident in the jail.
Teenage inmates became disorderly. Deputies shackled them, pulled down their pants, and beat them. The deputies, who have since been fired, were also accused of forcing one of the teens to wear a urine-soaked shirt and of passing gas in another's face.
Coleman didn't participate in the beatings -- in fact, she testified in court against the deputies, who were criminally charged. She was demoted, like Phillips, because her version of events wasn't believed. In her efforts to regain her rank, she heard that Charles Whitelock, who was then not affiliated with the sheriff's office, was a good lawyer and went to him for help.
"I told him everything, and he told me what I done was right," she said. "He told me the sheriff's office was crooked, and they didn't like it when people did the right thing. He took my case. I paid him between $300 and $500."
When Whitelock's friend, Ron Cochran, won the sheriff's seat in 1992 and made Whitelock his chief counsel, Whitelock sent Coleman a letter, telling her he could no longer represent her case because it would be a conflict of interest. He added that he didn't want to "hamper any successful outcome" on Coleman's claim.
When Whitelock began working at BSO, Coleman, whose rank was reinstated shortly after Cochran took office, would see the lawyer occasionally in the halls.
"He always would tell me, 'You know they really don't like you,'" she said. "'People really hate you.'" It wasn't said in a nice way, Coleman claims.
The "they" Whitelock was talking about were fellow deputies. Coleman had developed a reputation, after testifying in the court case and for frequently reporting other deputies' transgressions, as a "snitch," she says.
"She was known to be a by-the-book deputy," Whitelock explains.
In 1993 Coleman testified in court again, this time alleging that deputies beat up her sixteen-year-old nephew while arresting him. She was later accused by deputies of telling her nephew's public defender that one of the deputies involved was a liar and that several deputies were known to brutalize blacks. Needless to say, she wasn't winning any new friends in the department.
During her final few years at the sheriff's office, one deputy after another -- many of them her subordinates -- filed complaints against her, usually after she had accused them of not going by the book.
In the end, a collection of accusations against Coleman made by inmates and a couple of deputies were lumped together in a complaint by Susan McCampbell, the director of the jail, charging Coleman with harassment and conduct unbecoming a deputy.
The charges ranged from a deputy, who was one of Coleman's subordinates, complaining that Coleman threatened to write him up, to an inmate griping that Coleman refused to give him a new tray of food after he found a hair in his grub. Also used against her was a psychologist's opinion that Coleman had "interpersonal deficits which are likely to hinder her ability as a supervisor." It was McCampbell, her accuser, who ordered Coleman -- who was then pregnant with her now two-year-old son -- to see the psychologist, who, it should be noted, is paid by the sheriff's office.
Sitting on the board that fired her was McCampbell, her accuser, and Charles Whitelock, her former attorney. By this time, Whitelock's deal with the sheriff had already netted his law firm millions of dollars.
Whitelock's dealings for and against Coleman constitute a breach of ethics, Nieman argues. The bar rules state that a lawyer can't represent someone against a former client in the "same or substantially related matter." To Nieman and Coleman, the firing was "substantially related" to the demotion case because both involved Coleman's job as a BSO deputy: Whitelock had gone from representing Coleman against the sheriff's office in her quest to get her former job back to representing the sheriff's office against Coleman to take away her job altogether.
"Here was an attorney who I had told my secrets to -- not that any of my secrets were bad -- but I told him personal things and he was sitting on the board that was firing me," Coleman said.
Coleman filed a bar complaint against Whitelock on January 29. Whitelock argued in his response to the bar that the matters were "totally unrelated," and curiously stated he had made only a "personal appearance" on the board that fired her, underlining the word "personal."
He recently said he didn't represent her at all back in 1992, but only gave her "advice" -- an assertion that ignores a November 25, 1992 letter he sent to Coleman ending his "present representation" of her in the demotion case.
Whitelock now says that bit of correspondence was just a form letter he sent to all his former clients who were affiliated with the sheriff's office.
Another key sentence in his written response to the bar: "No fee was either charged to or paid by Ms. Coleman."
"If he said I didn't pay him, he's a liar," Coleman said emphatically.
When questioned about it, Whitelock tempered his original assertion.
"I could be wrong," he told New Times. "But I would make a fair-sized wager they won't come up with one paper to prove I was paid."
Coleman said she plans to search through her many boxes of papers regarding her long battle with BSO to try to prove him wrong.
On March 12, Adria Quintela, assistant staff counsel for the Florida Bar, ended the matter, ruling that there was no "clear and convincing evidence" of a conflict of interest. Given an opportunity to explain her decision to New Times, Quintela didn't do so.
But that's not the end of the legal wranglings between BSO and its accusers -- the discrimination suit is still alive. Coleman is adamant that she wouldn't have gone through all that she did if she weren't a black woman.
"One thing is I'm female and men don't like taking orders from women," Coleman said. "And black women are supposed to be the lowest of the low."
Whitelock calls the suit "worthless," a "joke." Sheriff Ken Jenne, who is in the process of replacing Whitelock, has authorized a settlement in the case, one the law firm scoffed at. Paralegal Nieman said it was too small, "something like ten or fifteen thousand dollars."
Whitelock contends the conflict of interest issue with Coleman was only brought up as an attempt by Ganz and Nieman to extract a settlement from BSO, an accusation that, judging from their track record, could hold some merit.
When Nieman heard that Whitelock called the suit a joke, he said he found that funny, "because that's exactly what Lockwood once said about the suit we filed against him.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.