In the Bag

So Judge Larry Seidlin, of Anna Nicole Smith fame, has quit the Broward County Courthouse to go off to Hollywood to develop a TV show.

South Florida should rejoice.

It´s not so much that the 57-year-old Seidlin was a bad judge; it was that he wasn´t much of a judge at all. He is, in fact, a shining example of the dim era ruled by outgoing Chief Judge Dale Ross, who pretty much let judges do as they pleased so long as they bowed at his feet.


Norman/Judge Larry Seidlin

So, other than drag the country though a needless and absurd Anna Nicole hearing/screen test, what did Seidlin do?

Well, as almost everyone at the courthouse can tell you, flying through dockets in the morning and playing tennis in the afternoon was his M.O. But what few know is that he also allegedly had time to wrangle gifts out of at least one lawyer working in his division and a small fortune from an elderly woman living in his ocean-view condo building on Las Olas Boulevard.

We´ll start with the woman.

Picture if you will the now-nationally recognizable bald and well-tanned Seidlin carrying a plate of breakfast down the elevator of the Marine Tower to the third floor and knocking on a door with his offering. Then imagine an 81-year-old woman opening the door with a smile and gratefully accepting the meal.

Now add lunch and dinner and throw in trips to the doctor and the hair salon and you might start to understand what Seidlin has been doing for years for Barbara Kasler, a wealthy neighbor with no living family but an older sister.

¨All of her sons passed away,¨ explains Seidlin´s mother-in-law, Barbara Ray. ¨So we took over and help her and do things with her. She takes all kinds of trips with Larry in Fort Lauderdale. She´s like a mother to him, she adores him, that´s like her little boy.

¨He even takes her to the hairdresser. He is adorable. That´s what people don´t know about him.¨

But Seidlin´s good deeds haven´t gone unrewarded. The judge and his family have garnered a small fortune from Kasler, who is in poor health and says she suffers memory lapses.

Kasler sold Seidlin´s in-laws a 17th-floor condo in the building for what was, based on comparable sales in the building, a bargain price of $300,000 (a similar unit sold later that year for $440,000). Then she deeded over a vacant lot in Palm Bay, in coastal Central Florida, to Seidlin´s wife, Belinda, for $100. It´s assessed at $45,000 today but is probably worth more. The elderly woman is also paying for Seidlin´s daughter´s education at the exclusive Pine Crest School. Six-year-old Dax has already spent two years at the school at an estimated cost of about $35,000.

On top of that, the judge has been enjoying privileges as Kasler´s guest at the Lauderdale Yacht Club.

I wanted to ask Seidlin about the windfall from the widow, but he had his lawyer, prominent defense attorney David Bogenschutz, contact me.

¨This is an elderly woman who is apparently lonely and has no family and has been reverse-adopted by the Seidlin family,¨ Bogenschutz told me. ¨That may be a lot of money, but I look at this as: What business is it of anybody else´s if it has nothing to do with his public persona?¨

Well, Seidlin happened to run the probate and family divisions at the courthouse before his resignation, so he should know better than to chisel money out of an old woman.

But is he really exploiting Kasler, or is he just being rewarded for good deeds?

That would depend on the content of his character, and, believe me, Seidlin is one hell of a character. I´ve spoken with numerous lawyers at the courthouse, and the picture that emerges of Seidlin is of a man who doesn´t like to work, has spent almost as much time on the tennis court as in a courtroom during his 29 years as a judge, doesn´t like to pay for anything, and usually finds an angle to benefit himself. In other words, he´s a guy who might just find a way to get some serious dough out of an elderly woman.

Some of the stories I´ve heard are humorous, some serious. The one about the Louis Vuitton purse is a bit of both.

It begins with veteran attorney Lawrence ¨Chris¨ Roberts walking through courthouse corridors about four years ago. Seidlin at the time was regularly appointing Roberts as a special public defender in the juvenile court, which paid the lawyer $350 a case.

It was actually lucrative work, especially in the courtroom of ¨Lightning Larry,¨ who was known to speed through cases in the morning so he wouldn´t have to work in the afternoon.

When Roberts saw Seidlin on this day, the judge slapped him on the hand, transferring a small piece of paper. Roberts looked in his hand, he says, and found a tag for a Louis Vuitton purse at Neiman Marcus that cost in excess of $1,000.

The judge then said that his wife would love to have the purse for her birthday. ¨The implication was that if I didn´t do this,¨ Roberts said, ¨the appointments would dry up.¨

The lawyer had his then-secretary, Nikki Jarema, go to the Galleria Mall in Fort Lauderdale to pick up the purse.

I contacted Jarema, who is now a real-estate agent, and she told me she remembered buying the purse, which she said was for Seidlin´s wife for her birthday. Later, Roberts met Seidlin in a parking lot at the intersection of Federal Highway and State Road 84 to deliver the purse, which Seidlin took with him directly to the airport. The judge and his wife were traveling out of town for her birthday, and Seidlin presented the purse to her on the flight as a gift, Roberts says.

Roberts says it wasn´t the only time Seidlin had instructed him to buy him gifts. There was another expensive purse purchase, and the judge also instructed him to buy a specific polo shirt for him, he says.

Well, it doesn´t take a lawyer to know that if Roberts´ stories are true, some of this might be just a little bit illegal -- and not only because the judge didn´t report the gifts on his financial disclosure forms.

Trying to reach Seidlin, I spoke with his wife, Belinda, and told her the story. ¨There is no way Larry would do anything like that,¨ she said. ¨He is so careful, and he´s not stupid. He would never do anything that´s not appropriate or not right.¨

Bogenschutz, however, told me that Seidlin had admitted that he received the purse -- but said he later returned it to Roberts.

Roberts laughed when I told him that.

¨He came into my office later,¨ Roberts said, ¨with an old beat-up Publix bag that had some old leather junky purse in it. He said, You bought my wife a purse; now I bought your wife a purse.´ It literally stank. I threw it in the trash can.¨

Bogenschutz told me he would get back to Seidlin on the matter and didn´t comment further. But the issue isn´t an easy one for him.

¨They both are friends of mine,¨ Bogenschutz told me. ¨I don´t know where the truth is. I think it´s somewhere in the middle.¨

But the gifts pale in comparison to what he´s gotten from Broward taxpayers. Seidlin went through his morning dockets in a flash, courthouse sources say. Broward County Chief Public Defender Howard Finkelstein says the judge was known to run a ¨rocket docket¨ and was so easy on defendants that lawyers relished working in his courtroom.

In May, WSVN-TV (Channel 7) investigative reporter Carmel Cafeiro followed him for four days and found that he took three-hour lunch breaks and rarely worked more than an hour in the afternoon before heading off to the tennis courts. For this, he was making $145,000 a year off taxpayers -- and will make that much for the rest of his life from his pension.

Seidlin´s family members have also made out at the public trough. His wife, Belinda, worked as an investigator for Al Schreiber, the former chief public defender, who was the best man at the couple´s 1999 Las Vegas wedding.

When Finkelstein replaced Schreiber, his chief investigator, Al Smith, looked into Belinda´s work.

¨There was three or four months´ of work on her desk that she had never even touched,¨ Smith recalls. ¨And there were a lot of complaints about the work she was assigned, because it was incomplete.¨

Finkelstein quickly fired Belinda, who now works as a real-estate agent.

Seidlin´s father-in-law, Oren Ray, also works at the courthouse. Several years ago he got a job as a courtroom deputy for the Broward Sheriff´s Office. Seidlin´s sister-in-law, attorney Wendy Seidlin, made the Miami Herald in 2000 for being among the top recipients of special public defender appointments at the courthouse.

And half the tight-knit clan seems to be involved with Barbara Kasler, the elderly woman who has lavished the family with the financial windfall. Kasler, though, says she doesn´t believe she´s being exploited in the least.

¨I´m waiting for him to bring me my lunch right now,¨ she said of the judge. ¨And I´m hungry. I´m taking advantage of him.¨

I asked Kasler, who is originally from Indian-apolis and acknowledges that she has a net worth in the millions of dollars, about the transfer of the Palm Bay land to Belinda Ray Seidlin.

¨I didn´t want to bother with it anymore, so I gave it to Dax,¨ says Kasler, referring to Seidlin´s daughter. ¨I thought she might want to build a house on it someday.¨

When I told her it was assessed for $45,000, she was incredulous, saying she didn´t think it was worth nearly that much. She acknowledged that she has given Seidlin cash gifts but wouldn´t say how much she´s given him. ¨I don´t remember,¨ she said.

When asked about her paying for Dax´s education at Pine Crest, she replied, ¨That´s between me and Dax.¨

Belinda Seidlin´s response to the same question mirrored Kasler´s: ¨That´s between her and Dax,¨ the mother said.

Bogenschutz, the attorney, said that this is a case of a kind family -- and a kind man named Larry Seidlin -- being rewarded.

¨If you ask him for something, he would drive to the next county to get it for you,¨ Bogenschutz says of Seidlin. ¨That´s the way he is.¨

Probably true -- as long as there´s something in it for Judge Larry.

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