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.