Defense attorney John Cotrone stood before Broward Circuit Judge Ana Gardiner in her marble-laden courtroom and dropped in what seemed like a jab at her honor.
It came after Gardiner, the chief criminal judge for the 17th Judicial Circuit, asked for an amended file on Cotrone's case. The lawyer pointed out that she had asked for the file "every time I'm in court on this."
Gardiner, a petite woman whose dark hair is tinted an artificial red, might have been displeased at being shown up by Cotrone. But instead she looked away and smiled.
"Is there a point to reminding me of that?" she asked Cotrone in her slight Cuban accent.
Gardiner shuffled through some papers on the bench before smiling again and goading Cotrone: "I may not have as good a memory as you — even though you are older than me."
It sounded almost like... flirting. And if you believe two sources close to Cotrone, who is indeed five months older than the 46-year-old Gardiner, it was just that.
Two well-placed sources, both of whom asked for anonymity for fear of professional repercussions, claim to have personal knowledge that Gardiner has had a personal relationship with Cotrone going back years.
Gardiner visited Cotrone's office, phoned him on a regular basis, and exchanged gifts with him, according to one of the sources with past ties to Cotrone.
At the same time, Gardiner showered Cotrone with taxpayers' money in the form of special appointments to represent indigent defendants in her courtroom.
The allegations of a romance between Gardiner and John Cotrone are widely known in Broward's criminal justice circles. While the accusation hasn't been reported in a newspaper, numerous comments from courthouse insiders on the Justice Advocacy Association of a Broward County website, JAABlog, have made the claim.
The blog chatter has gone unchallenged by the accused, says Bill Gelin, a defense attorney and JAAB member who writes for the site. Both Gardiner and Cotrone were given many opportunities to comment for this article, and both refused. Gardiner even went so far as to hire prominent defense attorney David Bogenschutz to order New Times to "cease and desist" from asking questions she found "insulting and embarrassing."
The silence from Gardiner is especially troubling considering that she is one of the most powerful public officials in Broward County. As Broward's chief criminal court administrator, she is in charge of 18 judges and largely responsible for making sure the courthouse runs smoothly. She has also taken a leading role in political matters, including the controversial effort to build a new Broward County courthouse.
The allegations of questionable social relationships involve not only Cotrone but two assistant state attorneys. If proven true, the allegations could have drastic ramifications not only for Gardiner but for the courthouse, which has already been rocked by numerous scandals during the past year.
The revelations could result in some criminal cases getting overturned — including a first-degree homicide case tried last year.
Ana Gardiner was enjoying drinks with friends on a Friday night last spring when the conversation turned to murder.
Sunrise Commissioner Sheila Alu was there that night. She, Gardiner, and Assistant State Attorney Howard Scheinberg were among those who got together for the night at the swank Timpano Chophouse and Martini Bar on Las Olas Boulevard.
Alu remembers Gardiner and Scheinberg talking about a murder case. They laughed about it, saying the people involved were gay. They talked about how a juror had fainted at the trial after being shown a particularly gruesome photograph of the victim's gaping neck wound.
The commissioner soon realized this wasn't just courthouse gossip: Gardiner was the judge in this ongoing trial, and Scheinberg was the prosecutor who was trying to put the defendant on Death Row.
Alu, a third-year law student at the time, knew their banter was terribly wrong. She recognized it as improper ex parte communication that was not only unfair to the defense but could cause a mistrial and prompt disciplinary action against both Gardiner and Scheinberg. She says she was so disturbed by it that she walked away from the table.
The conversation allegedly occurred on the night of March 23, 2007. Five days later, the Sun-Sentinel published an article headlined "Man Guilty In 2001 Murder." A jury had convicted a man named Omar Loureiro of first-degree murder in Gardiner's courtroom, rejecting defense lawyers' claims that he killed James Lentry in self-defense after receiving unwanted sexual advances.
"Prosecutor Howard Scheinberg said the slaying was too brutal — Lentry's head was nearly severed and he was stabbed twice in the neck and six times in the face — to justify self-defense," noted the article.
The newspaper didn't mention the fact that a photograph of Lentry's neck wound was shown to the jury on March 22 — the day before the outing at Timpano — or that a juror was excused from the jury after fainting at the sight of it.
Loureiro's defense attorneys pleaded with Gardiner not to allow the photos of Lentry into evidence, arguing that they would unfairly prejudice the jury against the defendant.
"The judge denied the motion," says Gawane Grant, one of Loureiro's two court-appointed attorneys. "I think those pictures were very influential for the jury. Those pictures were horrific. Our argument basically was that it was way too prejudicial to the jury. A juror who sees that is going to want the death penalty."
The jury did recommend the ultimate punishment, and Judge Gardiner followed suit, sending Loureiro to Death Row.
When told of Alu's description of the conversation between Gardiner and Scheinberg at Timpano, attorney Grant seemed stunned.
"If that's true, if they had that conversation during the trial, that is in utter contravention of the rules of law and our judicial system," says the lawyer, who stresses that he believed Gardiner was an excellent judge. "If that's the case, then the decision should be reversed immediately."
The revelation about the judge's apparent ex parte communication might be a defendant's worst fear come true. If one's fortune, freedom, or life is on the line, the idea that the judge is partying with the opposing attorney and talking about the case is mortifying. No matter what the nature of the relationship.
"You live in a town with a million people, find somebody else to socialize with," says Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, who has heard the rumors about Gardiner but says he has found no evidence they are true and has seen her to be a dedicated judge. "It looks wrong. It looks bad. And I don't think any defendant ever will believe it doesn't affect their decisions."
Scheinberg didn't respond to numerous phone messages and refused to answer e-mail questions. He released only a brief statement through State Attorney's Office spokesman Ron Ishoy: "I've been prosecuting homicide cases for 11 years," he wrote. "During that time, I have never discussed a pending case outside of the court with a presiding judge, including this case with Judge Gardiner."
If Gardiner was swayed by her social relationship with Scheinberg to allow the prosecutor to show the gruesome photographs at trial, it may cost Loureiro his life.
Not that Loureiro, a former ice cream truck driver, is a particularly sympathetic figure. After killing Lentry in 2001, he fled to Nicaragua, where he was jailed for shooting a woman during a scuffle on the street. But the father of two young daughters certainly deserved an impartial judge who didn't talk about his case with the prosecutor whose goal was to have him executed by the state.
The ruling that attorney Grant says had the most profound impact on the jury was the exhibition of post mortem photographs of the 57-year-old Lentry.
Scheinberg described Lentry's injuries in court records, writing that he was "stabbed in his mouth and neck as well as a tortuous linear wound down the entire side of the face...
"While James Lentry was disabled but conscious," Scheinberg continued, "the defendant began to saw through the base of Mr. Lentry's neck [leaving him] virtually decapitated."
It's not surprising that a juror fainted at the sight of the photographs.
As the case wound its way through the court system, Loureiro occasionally wrote letters to Gardiner in a neat hand. One written on August 1, 2006, referred to his belief that Scheinberg had wronged him in court by referring to his deportation when in fact he was never officially deported.
"Dear Judge Gardiner," he began the letter, " ...Mr. Howard Scheinberg mislead [sic] this Honorable Court that defendant was 'deported' to the United States from Nicaragua."
After his conviction, Loureiro's daughters, 14-year-old Lillian and 12-year-old Jessica, wrote Gardiner letters asking her to send their father home.
"I will miss my daddy very much and I love him with all my heart," Jessica wrote the judge this past June 10.
They had no way to know that the judge had a personal relationship with the prosecutor and that the pair discussed the case at a bar during the trial.
Alu says that she even told the prosecutor later on the night of the ex parte discussion that she was appalled he would talk about an active case with the judge.
"He told me that if I had a problem with it that it was my obligation to go to the Florida Bar with the complaint," she said.
Alu wasn't a lawyer yet, so she had no such obligation. And she knew how vindictive the power gaggle at the courthouse — of which Gardiner is firmly a part — could be.
For months, she did nothing. But the commissioner says it has bothered her ever since. She only went on record about it with New Times recently, and then only very reluctantly.
"I still believe in the process and the right to a fair trial," she says. "The defendant has a right to know, and the public has a right to know."
Judge Gardiner's career in Broward politics blossomed in part thanks to her close ties to a titan in the county's justice system: State Attorney Michael Satz.
Satz is a longtime friend of Gardiner's dating back to the days when she was married to William Gardiner, with whom she had a Fort Lauderdale law practice in the early 1990s.
When a slot came open on the highly political North Broward Hospital District in 1993, Satz wrote a recommendation letter on Gardiner's behalf to then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, who appointed her to the post, jump-starting her career in public office.
While serving on that board, Gardiner formed a political alliance with since-disgraced Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne, then a state senator and chief counsel for the public health system.
Both Jenne and Satz, two powerful friends, supported her appointment to the bench in 1998, which was also made by the late Chiles. Jenne, who is now serving prison time on federal corruption charges, participated in her robing ceremony. Born Ana Villaescuesa in Cuba, Gardiner was the first Hispanic female circuit judge in Broward County history. She was 36.
Six months after that appointment, Gardiner, who has two children, divorced her husband and soon became a footnote in one of the more sordid public scandals to hit the courthouse.
Gardiner had long been good friends with fellow Broward Circuit Judge Joyce Julian; both reportedly enjoyed the nightlife. In 2001, the pair flew together to a state judicial convention at a resort on north Florida's Amelia Island, where they shared a room. By 3 a.m. Julian was naked from the waist down in the hotel, trying to thwart security guards and police. Julian told police she had been sexually assaulted by a man in a black leather coat — a story investigators determined was fabricated.
Julian was charged with public intoxication, but the case was dropped after she entered alcohol rehabilitation. Voters turned her out of office in the next election.
Gardiner largely escaped public attention during the scandal, and Julian says she had no role in it. About that same time, a young prosecutor named Peter Patanzo was assigned to her courtroom. And it wasn't long before fellow attorneys were talking about how close they seemed.
"People said you could feel it in the courtroom," says Public Defender Finkelstein. "They said you could tell there was a relationship, but it was nothing articulable."
Finkelstein said he heard complaints from public defenders about it, but because there was no proof of an improper relationship, no action was taken. Patanzo left the State Attorney's Office in 2004, writing to Satz at the time that "due to certain circumstances I have accepted a position in private practice." He now works as a defense attorney in Fort Lauderdale and didn't respond to several detailed attempts to interview him by phone.
It wasn't until 2006 that an assistant public defender, Vivian Gariboldi, tried to file a motion to recuse Gardiner from a case because of the perceived relationship, according to records obtained from the Public Defender's Office.
Gariboldi, who didn't respond to interview requests, had a source with knowledge of a romance between Gardiner and Patanzo, according to internal e-mails at the agency. On November 2, 2006, Finkelstein e-mailed his chief assistants, Diane Cuddihy and Catherine Keuthan, to find out about the status of the affidavit.
"I spoke to Viviane [sic] last week and told her that with simply rumor there was not enough to go forward on this motion," Keuthan wrote back to Finkelstein, "and that even with substantiation there still might not be enough to recuse, so that first she needed to see if she could prove this affair. Therefore, nothing should have been filed at this time."
The episode vividly reveals how the mere perception of a relationship affected Gardiner's courtroom. And that perception can be traced at least back to 2002, when Gardiner made some questionable rulings in Patanzo's favor.
One example is the case of Dario Thomas, an 18-year-old charged in 2001 with two counts of armed robbery in Broward County. Thomas' prosecutor was Patanzo and his defense attorney, ironically, was Cotrone, who was appointed to the case by Gardiner. A source says that at the time Gardiner was dating Patanzo and that Cotrone was aware of it and spoke of it.
When the case went to trial in Gardiner's courtroom in 2003, Patanzo tried to expel a Florida International University professor named Javier Gasana from the jury pool on the grounds that he sat silently in the courtroom through the selection process.
Because Gasana, like the defendant, was black, Cotrone argued that Patanzo was wrongfully trying to exclude an African-American from the jury because he was "silent."
"I don't think that is a race-neutral reason at all," Cotrone remarked at trial. "I mean if you asked him questions, he answered them. I asked him a question, he answered my question. It's not his fault that nobody asked him anything."
Despite that argument, Gardiner ruled in the prosecution's favor, saying that she didn't believe Patanzo's "personal feeling" about Gasana had anything to do with race.
"Based on the court's observation of Gasana's demeanor and based on the fact that it has not been a systematic striking of minorities in the panel by Mr. Patanzo, I do not find it to be a pretext and find it to be a race-neutral reason," she ruled.
Gardiner also allowed Patanzo to admit into evidence six previous robberies allegedly committed the same night in Miami-Dade County. The teenager was convicted of both counts, and Gardiner handed down what seems a particularly harsh sentence: 30 years in state prison.
It didn't stick. The Fourth District Court of Appeals reviewed trial records and found that Gardiner had ruled in Patanzo's favor improperly on both issues. The appellate judges determined that Gasana wasn't silent; on the contrary he answered all questions asked of him.
The court also found that Gardiner improperly admitted the six previous robberies into evidence. The conviction was reversed, and Thomas pleaded the case down to a ten-year sentence, saving him 20 years. He's scheduled to be released in 2010.
Though Gardiner's work in the courtroom had its ups and downs, she managed to keep her personal life out of the news after the Julian incident. Until this past Super Bowl Sunday.
It happened in a flash. Judge Gardiner's BMW plowed into the back of a new Mercedes Benz on NE 25th Way and sped off.
The accident occurred during a Super Bowl block party in an upscale Fort Lauderdale neighborhood on the Intracoastal. By the time the Mercedes' owner, a woman named My Warhaftig, got to her car, Gardiner had returned to the scene and was sitting silently in her BMW.
It was just before halftime in the Giants-Patriots game on February 3. While Gardiner stayed holed up in her car, a friend of hers, fellow lawyer Howard Friedman, showed up. He lived across the street from where the accident occurred, and Warhaftig says she heard Friedman's explanation of what had likely happened from neighbors.
A former boyfriend of Gardiner's was visiting Friedman's house, she was told, and Gardiner had likely driven by to check up on him. When the boyfriend came out of the house, she likely sped off so as not to be seen, which caused her to collide with Warhaftig's Mercedes.
Fort Lauderdale police charged Gardiner with failure to use due care. The incident was reported in this newspaper and other media outlets, but Gardiner refused to speak publicly about it with anyone, a policy she has maintained with this story.
As has Cotrone.
When John Cotrone left Gardiner's courtroom on April 11, he was asked about his relationship with the judge. Instead of addressing the issue, he repeatedly warded off the questioner.
"I don't talk to the press," said Cotrone, who was in Gardiner's courtroom that day representing a man named Eric Lucas, who is facing charges of burglary and aggravated battery. "I don't talk about cases and I don't talk about personal matters."
Later that day, well-known defense attorney Fred Haddad, a longtime friend of Cotrone's, contacted New Times in an attempt to dissuade the newspaper from publishing the story. He claimed he was calling of his own volition. "She's one of the good ones," he said of Gardiner. "This is going to cause [Judicial Qualifying Commission] investigations, and nobody needs that."
He didn't deny that his friend was involved in a romance with the judge. Instead, he argued that judges and prosecutors and defense attorneys have been drinking together and having sex with one another for years in Broward County.
"What's the big deal so long as it doesn't affect their decisions?" he asked.
An answer to Haddad's rhetorical question comes in judicial rules, which dictate that judges strictly avoid so much as an appearance that their decisions on the bench might be influenced by personal matters. Judges around the country have resigned, faced investigation, and been publicly reprimanded for as much.
For example, after it was discovered recently that Lee County Judge James R. Adams was romancing a defense attorney who had appeared before him, the state's Supreme Court found that he'd demeaned his office.
"A judge who enters into a romantic relationship with a lawyer who practices before the judge, and then continues to preside over matters in which the lawyer appears as counsel transgresses the Code of Judicial Conduct in both letter and spirit," the court wrote in 2006.
The allegations regarding Cotrone go a step further, however, since taxpayers' money is involved. Gardiner appointed him to many cases prior to 2004, when the state legislature ended the often corrupt practice of judges personally appointing attorneys to represent indigent defendants.
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Gardiner has also refused to answer the allegations involving Cotrone, Scheinberg, and Patanzo. But she clearly understands their gravity. After a reporter questioned her about those relationships in her courtroom on April 11, Gardiner hired Bogenschutz to represent her.
Bogenschutz, who defended Gardiner's old friend Ken Jenne in his federal criminal case and dozens of other public officials entangled in the criminal justice system, wrote a letter the same day to New Times, demanding that the newspaper stop asking questions that had caused Gardiner to "retain counsel, expend funds, and to be personally insulted and embarrassed."
The Bogenschutz letter, which was signed by his partner Michael Dutko, also demanded that the newspaper "cease and desist" from contacting the judge.
And Judge Gardiner has remained publicly silent on the issue.