It was bound to happen. With all these judges running for office and collecting money from attorneys who appear before them, someone was bound to complain, perhaps rightfully, that justice was for sale in Broward County.Enter megaboat dealer Todd Littlejohn, owner of Freedom Marine in Deerfield Beach. Littlejohn says that Broward County Circuit Judge Eileen O'Connor has run roughshod over him in a lawsuit filed against him by Bank of America over a financial dispute.
Littlejohn believes O'Connor's consistent orders and the dubious $390,000 default judgment against him in the lawsuit are directly related to the fact that O'Connor was showing favoritism to campaign contributor Mimi Sall, the bank's lawyer in the case.
Sall has not only contributed the $500 maximum to O'Connor's reelection campaign account but has also, according to Littlejohn, worked as a volunteer on O'Connor's campaign. That's a problem, says Littlejohn.
UPDATED: Littlejohn said he initially handled the lawsuit himself, trying to hammer out a settlement with Sall. While they were in talks, he says Sall asked for and received from Clerk of Court the $390,000 default judgment based on Littlejohn not filing answers in the lawsuit. Littlejohn says at this point, he hired an attorney, Michael Sacks, of Parkland.
O'Connor then granted the motion during a hearing on June 29. Littlejohn says neither he nor Sacks were notified of that date. On top of that, he was in the hospital at the time suffering from chest pains. After that order came down, Sacks asked
O'Connor to set aside the default motion based on the fact that the two sides were in settlement negotiations and the lack of notification regarding the hearing date. O'Connor tersely denied that motion on July 20 based on the fact that Littlejohn didn't provide his defense to the lawsuit with the motion.Littlejohn says O'Connor's rulings led him to believe something was awry, and a little internet digging showed that Sall had contributed $250 to O'Connor's campaign last December, prior to the case being filed in March, and an additional $250 to the judge on June 4, just 25 days before the default judgment was issued.
"Maybe I should have looked at [Judge O'Connor's] campaign contributors' list and picked one of those lawyers so we could have a level playing field here," said Littlejohn. "The court is supposed to be fair to both sides, not just to one."
Neither Sall nor O'Connor, who is running against Rhoda Sokoloff for reelection, have returned calls I left for them yesterday. [UPDATED: O'Connor's judicial assistant just called and said O'Connor received the message but can't comment on a pending case.]
Anyway you look at this situation, it stinks. O'Connor -- who has been dogged by past discrimination complaints filed against her while she worked as a federal prosecutor before being appointed by Jeb Bush in 2003 -- can say Sall's money and support had no influence on her decisions in the case, but the appearance is there. I can't imagine anyone in Littlejohn's shoes not feeling the same way he does.
"It's like Runway 84 on a busy night," says Littlejohn, a veteran businessman in Deerfield. "If you walk in and give the maitre'd $100, they are going to seat you real quick. You don't do that, you got to wait like everybody else."
It's another piece of evidence to support the argument that electing judges is a mess that must be changed. We need a new system. Just looking at O'Connor's contribution list provides reason for that. She is backed by an array of powerful interests in town, including Wayne Huizenga, lobbyist George Platt's firm, lobbyist Tom Panza, Skip Campbell's downtown law firm, W. George Allen, attorney Fred Haddad, attorney David Bogenschutz, taxi king Jesse Gaddis, and attorney Bill Scherer.
It's the perfect storm to create the impression that O'Connor is nothing more than a front for the people who run this town. It would seem that an average Joe going up against one of O'Connor's well-heeled contributors in her courtroom would be at a disadvantage. That may be only a perception, but it's there, and it will always be there as long as O'Connor is a judge.
Isn't it bad enough they already have a lot of the politicians in their pockets?
For Littlejohn, it's not over. He has plenty of means to sustain a legal battle, and he says he's not going to stop fighting until he gets a fair hearing in O'Connor's courtroom -- or in another one. "Maybe they thought I would just roll over," he said. "I'm not going anywhere."