Why She Did It
Sheila Alu sometimes feels like a marked woman. The Sunrise commissioner has been called a "rat" on blogs and newspaper websites, has been shunned at her day job as prosecutor in the State Attorney's Office, has lost friendships, and was personally attacked in a recent deposition.
Her sin: coming forward about gross misconduct on the part of a well-connected local judge.
Alu, a single mom first elected to office in 2001, came forward in New Times last year about Broward Circuit Judge Ana Gardiner's improper socializing with a prosecutor during a first-degree murder trial. As a result, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the death-penalty conviction of Omar Loureiro last week and ordered a new trial.
Although a number of courthouse insiders laud Alu for speaking out about a courthouse rife with abuse and corruption, she has gained no shortage of enemies for doing the right thing.
And real justice hasn't come. The erratic Gardiner, whose career has benefited from friendships with State Attorney Michael Satz and disgraced former Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne, has yet to be punished despite the fact that she had improper communication with a prosecutor and clearly violated a defendant's constitutional rights.
Worse, the judge demonstrably lied in an April 30 deposition in the Loureiro appeal when she denied much of Alu's story. In that deposition, Gardiner also made unseemly personal allegations against the Sunrise commissioner that Alu says are untrue.
The 46-year-old Alu says she's not sure if speaking out about Gardiner's misconduct was worth it. "I'll think I made the right decision if other people come forward when they see misconduct at the courthouse," she says. "If they don't, it wasn't worth it."
To understand why Alu came forward against Gardiner, why she put her career as a politician and prosecutor on the line, you have to go back to her childhood in Palm Beach County, where she grew up in an abusive and neglectful household and was put into foster care when she was 11.
She says she suffered terribly in state-supervised care, an experience that later motivated her to want to change the bureaucracy and fight corruption. But before she ever thought about politics, she wanted a family of her own. After a failed first marriage, she and second husband, Joe Alu, a Plantation police officer, had a daughter, Christina, in 1991.
Four years later, Joe Alu was blown up in a house explosion that severely burned him and another officer, Jim O'Hara. Two young girls were killed, as was their estranged and distraught father, who had poured gasoline throughout the house.
While caring for her husband, Alu learned that if he were unable to return to work, the city's health coverage would run out for the family. Her fight to change that put her in the public eye. "Go to the mayor's office," she told the Sun-Sentinel. "Go bang down his door."
A political career was born. Her effort ended after a triumphant trip to Washington, D.C., where she watched then-President Bill Clinton sign the Alu-O'Hara Public Safety Officer Benefits Act on the lawn of the Rose Garden.
The issue also led Alu to become politically involved at the local level. In 2001, she won election to the Sunrise commission.
During her first term, she met lobbyist Ali Waldman, the girlfriend and lawyer for land baron Ron Bergeron. Waldman was leader of a group of political women who called themselves the Steel Magnolias. Alu joined the club, which also included state Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff and political operative Mary Fertig.
The women were hyped at one time in the media as corruption fighters, and Alu took the role to heart. "I thought the Magnolias were about ridding Broward of corruption and putting incorruptible people into office," she says. "I really believed that."
Alu, who divorced Joe Alu in 2004, and Waldman became close. Alu says she looked up to Waldman, who encouraged her to enroll in law school at Nova Southeastern University. Waldman often brought Alu to Bergeron's expansive ranch, Green Glades, and the women were seen at dinners and charities all around town.
But Alu knew that Waldman lobbied local governments on behalf of clients, including the superwealthy Bergeron. She says she told Waldman never to lobby her on Sunrise matters or the friendship would have to end.
"We had an explicit oral agreement, 'You don't lobby me, we don't do any business together, we're just best friends,' " says Alu.
There were a few gifts above the $100 limit she was allowed to receive. In 2005, she had Waldman and Bergeron over to her house for dinner. When Bergeron saw that only one burner worked on her stove, he had a new one delivered for $1,200. Alu properly disclosed the gift on state forms.
She didn't see anything wrong with it because she never used her political office to help Bergeron or Waldman. And neither of them ever asked. Until 2007.
Early that year, Waldman began talking about a plan to build a large housing development on the old Sunrise Country Club site. Alu says Waldman told her that the company proposing it, Miami-based GC Homes, was good and that she was a friend of the owners, Pedro and Michael Garcia-Carillo.
Alu says she began to suspect that Waldman was using her friendship to push the golf course development in her city. She tried to avoid the topic.
Then came the night of March 23, 2007, when Alu met Judge Ana Gardiner at Timpano on Las Olas Boulevard for dinner and drinks.
Alu says that Gardiner called before arriving and said she was with someone she shouldn't be with. Then the judge showed up with homicide prosecutor Howard Scheinberg and fellow judge Charlie Kaplan.
What happened next is well-known to those who follow Broward news: Gardiner and Scheinberg began laughing about a juror fainting at a murder trial after seeing gruesome photographs of the murder victim. They also laughed about the fact that both the defendant, Omar Loureiro, and the victim were gay.
When Alu realized that Gardiner was the judge in the case and Scheinberg the prosecutor and that the trial was still ongoing, she was stunned. She had just taken the ethics portion of the Florida Bar test the week before and knew this was utterly wrong — even cause for a mistrial.
As Scheinberg rode with her to another bar, Alu says she immediately asked him, with outrage in her voice, how he and Gardiner could talk about an ongoing case. He told her that if she felt it was wrong, she should report it to the bar.
When they arrived at the Blue Martini, Scheinberg was extremely upset by the conversation and left almost immediately. Kaplan and Gardiner left with him.
The next day, Alu sought advice from lawyer Stuart Michelson, husband of County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman.
"He was astonished at what they'd done," says Alu. "He started spewing off canon violations. I asked him, 'What should I do about it?' He said that I wasn't technically a lawyer yet so I didn't have a legal obligation to report her to the bar."
Another friend, property appraiser's investigator Ron Cacciatore, heard about what had happened from Judge Kaplan, who has since died of a heart attack, and called Alu about it. He says he told her that she shouldn't repeat what she had heard. "She was agonizing over the behavior of a sitting judge," says Cacciatore. "I told her to forget about it... sometimes the right thing can cause you more problems."
Now Alu was at odds with two friends, Waldman and Gardiner, over serious ethical issues. To top it off, the trio of women flew to New York City for a shopping trip the next weekend, in part to celebrate Alu's graduation from law school.
She says that it was the first real vacation she'd taken in nearly a decade and that she was ready to have a good time. But once they were there shopping on Fifth Avenue, it went downhill fast.
Alu rarely spoke with Gardiner in New York or ever again; their budding friendship was already dead. (In a deposition taken more than a year later, when the Timpano incident was finally investigated, Gardiner denied talking about the case with Scheinberg. In an ad hominem attack, Gardiner also accused Alu of drinking too much and having an affair with the married Cacciatore — an accusation both Cacciatore and Alu strongly deny.)
Alu says that she still wanted to save her friendship with Ali Waldman but that the lobbyist wasn't making that easy.
"Ali kept talking about developing this golf course," she says. "It wasn't like she just brought it up once — she kept going on and on and on about it. I finally said, 'What is the deal with you and this golf course?' And she said, 'This is one of my clients.' My mouth dropped wide open."
Alu says she reminded Waldman of the no-lobbying rule. "I told her she wasn't even registered to lobby and she wasn't supposed to be lobbying me," says Alu. "Ali said it was a gray area. I told her there was no gray area and that she could either choose our friendship or her client."
About a month after returning from New York, Waldman made her decision when she registered as a lobbyist for GC Homes with the City of Sunrise. Alu and Waldman haven't spoken since — and Alu, after hearing complaints from residents about the golf course, killed the plan before it even had a chance to come up for a vote on the Sunrise commission. Waldman didn't respond to a call for comment.
Months after the Timpano incident, Alu told me, off the record, what Gardiner had done and said it still bothered her. I told her it was a very important story, but she refused to go on the record, saying that it might not do any good and that it could ruin her career as a lawyer.
In January 2008, Alu was hired as a prosecutor for the State Attorney's Office. A month later, on Super Bowl Sunday, Judge Gardiner crashed her car on a Fort Lauderdale street while spying on a boyfriend at a party.
Using the bizarre accident as a springboard, I began reporting on allegations of improper relationships with lawyers that have been made against Gardiner over the years. Again, I asked Alu if she would go on the record about what she'd seen. After first refusing, she called and left a message on my answering machine.
"OK, I thought about it. I'm ready to give you my quote and what I want to say about Ana Gardiner, and you can use my name," she said. "I realize by speaking out to the press about this incident... it could lead some people from the legal community to shun me or potentially blackball me, but I became a lawyer to seek justice... I still believe in a defendant's right to a fair trial. I feel the public has a right to know."
Soon we would find out.
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