When Campaign Consultants Attack

Nobody said running for judge in Broward County would be easy. Ask political newcomer Alan Bernstein. The 53-year-old attorney, who has been a workaday lawyer his entire professional life, is challenging Broward Circuit Judge Barbara McCarthy, who is not only an incumbent but has the advantage of being the wife of another sitting judge, Arthur Birken.

The odds are against Bernstein, but he's learning fast about the dirty alchemy that makes up electoral politics in Broward. 

"I'm not a political person, and I can write a book on what I've seen since I've been running for judge," said Bernstein, who is charging hard as the August 24 primary vote approaches. "I'm learning a lesson as a person who wants to do his job and be a judge and help the public. I just want to give my best, but there are so much politics out there, and I won't allow myself to get involved in politics. I have to stay above the politics." 

Right now, a whole lot of judges and wannabe judges are having to delve into that often-dirty world. There are an unprecedented 42 candidates vying for 20 judgeships in Broward County. They're learning about shady political operatives and raising money, about the Byzantine world of political hustlers and condo commandos, of power brokers and fellow lawyers trying to buy influence with their support, about the dubious underpinnings of the entire process.

Although Bernstein wants to stay out of that world, he hired political operative Jack Shifrel to delve into it for him. Shifrel, who is also working for Judge Lee Jay Seidman and judicial candidate Rhoda Sokoloff, has always known how to make a buck off his official position with the Democratic Party. He pushes election tchotchkes and talks strategy, but what he's really selling is his supposed influence as a longtime official in Broward's Democratic Party. Shifrel pushes his candidates in the voter-rich condo crowds and helps get their names on the supposedly important "palm cards" listing political endorsements at the condos on Election Day.

In March, Bernstein paid Shifrel $1,500 for his peculiar services. A few months after that, things went wrong. Both Bernstein and Shifrel admit that much.

One political source told me that Shifrel demanded another $1,500 from Bernstein, who refused to

pay because he said it wasn't part of the deal. The source said Shifrel allegedly told Bernstein that if he didn't get the money, Bernstein's name wouldn't appear on the Election Day palm card of Bernie Parness, another Democratic leader. Parness runs the Deerfield Beach Democratic Club and lives in Century Village. With 17,000 residents who like to vote and a median age of 80, Century Village is a key political fiefdom in Broward. Parness and Shifrel are known to be friendly.

Faced with that dilemma, Bernstein forked over the $1,500, said the source. But apparently Bernstein's name is still not on Parness' palm card.

I asked Bernstein whether he believed he'd been politically extorted.

"We had business differences," said Bernstein, who refused to discuss the palm card. "I don't look at it as extortion. We had a difference of opinion, and we resolved it. Part of the problem was we didn't have a written contract."

I asked him if he was on the Parness palm card.

"I don't know if I'm on his card or not," said Bernstein. "Somebody said the cards came out already, but I don't know."

I also asked Shifrel about his conflict with Bernstein.

"It would not be a misunderstanding to say we had a misunderstanding," said Shifrel. "But we worked everything out. I've had stronger misunderstandings with a lot of other people, but we have no problem with each other, and I am doing everything I can to help him get elected."

Was Shifrel paid to deliver Bernstein's name on Parness' palm card?

"I have nothing to do with Bernie Parness' palm card," said Shifrel. "Where did you hear that? That kind of tells me that the only person who could give you the tip was Bernie Parness."

Why, because Shifrel had an agreement with Parness over the palm card?

"It had nothing to do with that," answered Shifrel. "It had nothing to do with Bernie Parness' palm card."

Palm cards are the stuff of democracy, especially in condo-rich Broward, and judicial candidates take them very seriously -- and even more so for the ones going around Century Village. When asked if Bernstein was on his palm card, Parness said, "No comment."

So much for an open and transparent Democratic Party. When pressed further, Parness offered: "I'm saying my palm cards are personal. If I put out a palm card, I put it out personally, paid for by me and put out by me."

Does Shifrel help pay for the cards or have any influence on them?

"Jack has nothing to do with my palm cards, nor does the Democratic Party, nor does my [Democratic] club, nor does anybody else," said Parness. "It's a palm card that I put out, and who's on it is nobody's business."

That logic would seem to defeat the purpose of palm cards, but that was Parness' story, and he was sticking to it. I'm betting McCarthy is on his palm card, but so far the secret is safe.

Bernstein for his part says he's not worried about Parness' palm card. Instead, he's busy trying to win an election. As of the last campaign reports, he had raised about $45,000, with $20,000 coming from his own savings account. That means he has managed to raise $25,000, mostly from fellow lawyers, in his campaign against the incumbent.

His opponent, McCarthy, has raised just a hair under $100,000, with $15,000 of it coming from her pocket. She has the backing of big-time lobbying operation Ruden McClosky, downtown lawyer Skip Campbell, and lobbyist Tom Panza, among others. She's managed to largely shake off the fact that her first campaign treasurer was Stuart Rosenfeldt, partner of Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein. Her son, Shawn Birken, was also a partner in the Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler law firm and is now partners in a new law firm with Rosenfeldt, who remains under federal investigation.

Fundraising is another argument against electing judges. One New York Times analysis done in Ohio, a state that also has elected judges, showed that judges favored attorneys who contributed to their campaigns 70 percent of the time. Not bad odds.

Bernstein says his contributors will gain no sway with him if he's elected.

"I have to stick with my integrity," Bernstein said. "Nothing like that would ever influence my decisions. And I can't get involved in disputes such as [the one with Shifrel] or any other dispute. I have to stay above the fray."

This year, that's not easy.