Judge's Gambit | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Judge's Gambit

His lawyer, Daniel Maggio, told of how Myers was helping his girlfriend cope with cancer and how he was trying to turn his life around. He asked Gardiner to forgive him for his "technical-of-sorts violation."

It would seem that Gardiner, who is the chief criminal judge in Broward County, was faced with a tough decision. Do you send a man charged with nonviolent crimes to prison for coming home late? Do you take away his freedom because of a curfew violation?

For Gardiner, though, it was simple.

"It's black and white," she told Myers, who sat quietly as he listened. "... I gave you a second chance. You violated community control."

And with that, Myers was escorted out of the courtroom, his chains clinking with each step. He was on his way to 27 months in state prison.

Gardiner makes such decisions every day, but watching that quiet drama play out in court on April 11 really brought home to me how profoundly important a job she really has. The woman holds people's lives in her hands.

That's why any indication that she is personally tied to either the defense attorney or the prosecutor in her courtroom should be taken extremely seriously and be investigated fully.

And that's why I was in Gardiner's courtroom that day — to give her a chance to address allegations that she'd had improper personal relationships with a defense attorney and two prosecutors who had practiced before her.

My report, which also includes an allegation that she was partying with a prosecutor during a first-degree murder trial, is published in this issue of New Times. What you won't find in that cover story, however, is what unfolded the day I paid a visit to Gardiner's courtroom, a course of events that has led me to question not only her personal ties to court business but also her judgment.

It really begins after Gardiner sentenced Myers, who was the last defendant of the morning court session. I went out to the hallway to speak with Maggio for a moment, and when I tried to return to the courtroom, the door was locked.

For a moment, I thought I had blown it. You see, the only way to speak with a judge who refuses to return your phone calls is to address her in her courtroom. And Judge Gardiner had ignored my calls.

Of course you can't question a judge while she is conducting courtroom business. You wait until everyone is gone and the judge is about to leave the courtroom before you introduce yourself.

I stood by the locked door for a moment before an attorney walked out. I took that opportunity to get back in (and, yes, I felt lucky). I sat down in the courtroom and waited for the right time. All the prosecutors left. All the defense attorneys left. The defendants were gone. The only people left were Gardiner, an aide or two, a court reporter, and a couple of bailiffs.

Business was finished, so I walked up to the bar that separates spectators like me from the judges and lawyers. As I stood there, a bailiff noticed and asked, "Can I help you?"

Gardiner then looked up at me and I addressed her.

I calmly introduced myself as a reporter with New Times, told her I was doing a story about her, and asked her if she had a minute to answer some questions.

I knew that she knew full well what the story was about, not only because I had left a message on her phone but because the courthouse was already buzzing about the story.

She smiled and said, "No."

Then I said that it was important, and that it involved her relationships with defense attorney John Cotrone, former prosecutor Peter Patanzo, and assistant state attorney Howard Scheinberg.

Gardiner waved over the bailiff, who approached me and told me to leave. I quietly walked out with him, and we wished each other good day. I also told him, "I gotta ask these questions."

And it was true. The encounter was purely professional. I wanted to give Gardiner every opportunity to tell her story, and I didn't want any misconception about whether she had ample opportunity to answer the allegations.

About an hour after I got back home, my editor, Ed Newton, called me.

"So you paid a visit to Ana Gardiner's courtroom today?" he asked.

Newton told me that David Bogenschutz, a very prominent attorney in Broward County who represents just about every major public official who gets in trouble, sent a complaint letter about my encounter with Gardiner.

He read some of it to me, including the first paragraph in which Bogenschutz complained of my "inappropriate actions" that occurred "while Court was still in session."

Here's more:

"My client, and others, have advised me that a reporter from the New Times, whom we believe to have been Bob Norman, entered Judge Gardiner's courtroom, as the docket was winding down, stood up and shouted questions at the Court of an extremely personal and inappropriate nature which were not answered by the Court. When the Court declined to answer these questions, Mr. Norman, again in a loud voice, asked other questions confronting the court a second time... and was required to be escorted from the Courtroom by a Sheriff's deputy. Allegedly he identified himself as a Sun-Sentinel reporter."

Talk about tipping your hand. I've been with New Times ten years. My wife works for the Sun-Sentinel. Why would I ever introduce myself as a Sun-Sentinel reporter? Ridiculous.

Bogenschutz and, by extension, Gardiner, was basically claiming I was a shouting madman who misrepresented my own employer.

There was more.

"This kind of blatantly contemptuous conduct, if true, will not be tolerated," the letter goes on. "If Mr. Norman, or any other reporter, conducts himself in a fashion similar to that which occurred today, and, if true, reflect in a significantly negative manner on your publication, his actions will be dealt with as anyone else who would openly disrupt a proceeding in the Circuit Court."

Key words: "if true."

Bogenschutz, whose letter was actually signed by his partner Michael Dutko, concludes: "Moreover, the content of his remarks and their suggestions were so outrageous on information and belief, so as to cause Judge Gardiner to retain counsel, expend funds, and to be personally insulted and embarrassed as well as obstructing the orderly administration of justice in her courtroom. With all due respect to you and your paper, this outrageous conduct must cease and desist. PLEASE GOVERN YOURSELF ACCORDINGLY."

Call me naïve, but I was actually surprised that a sitting judge, a chief judge no less, would stoop to hiring an attorney to send a letter filled with so many inaccuracies and mischaracterizations in an attempt to discredit me.

If the truth means so little to Gardiner in this instance, what else would she stoop to? What else has she stooped to?

And it made me feel that Gardiner wasn't qualified to sit in judgment of Shawn Myers or anyone else.