When Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein got the evidence, he went straight to the media.
The evidence, in this case, was a grainy black-and-white video taken on a dark street, along with the testimony of a key witness. The witness said he saw three Broward sheriff's deputies beat up a homeless man for no reason. The video very vaguely reveals the beating itself. You can see the videotape here on the WSVN-Channel 7 website.
Just don't expect to get much out of it. I asked Finkelstein to describe what the video shows, since I couldn't make much out of it.
"It is shadows of people hitting somebody," says Finkelstein. "You can't see every blow, but you can see arms flail and you can tell that the motion in which they are delivered is downward and that the person that is taking them is on the ground. When you hear the witness describe what is happening, that black and white grainy video becomes very, very dramatic."
Finkelstein said that an investigator with the Public Defender, former FLPD cop Mark Furdon, found both the witness, Roberto Aguilara, and the video. "It started because [McGovern] is walking in the street," says Finkelstein. "Is that against the law? Yes, but do you mean to tell me that four police officers can't arrest or correct someone walking in the street without delivering so much violence?"
Sheriff Al Lamberti called Finkelstein's video release to Channel 7 a "sneak attack" against his agency. It's a dubious metaphor considering the cirumstances and Finkelstein characteristically fires back.
"He's furious that I didn't come to him first but if you think I believe in the integrity of police policing themselves, that's insanity," Finkelstein told me. "How many cops have you seen prosecuted for using excessive force. Maybe one or two. There is a very small percentage of police that act like criminals, and they harm the majority of officers who put their lives on the line every day. But those that do have been able to do so with impunity. There's a code of silence; internal affairs will rarely take action and you have a state attorney's office that hears no evil, sees no evil, and prosecutes no evil."
Finkelstein is clearly a key and important voice in Broward County, one of the few officials I've seen not afraid to speak the truth even it ruffles high-ranking feathers ("Justice first, peace second" is one of his mottos). And I obviously agree that the only way to get justice in this town is to expose what is happening to the public at large. We've seen homeless men get bruised up for no good reason by BSO deputies before, after all. My only problem is with Finkelstein chosen video venue, WSVN. The public defender, after all, works for WSVN on the long-running feature, "Help Me Howard." Might it not be a slight conflict of interest for Finkelstein to feed
controversial video from his public office to his private employer? Might his favor for WSVN, made possible by his elected office, not give Finkelstein some bonus points at Channel 7 and perhaps even some negotiating might when it comes time to renegotiate his contract?
When I asked Finkelstein about it, he acknowledged that the questions were fair and stressed that he almost always gives his media scoops to Bill Gelin at JAABlog, not WSVN. He said in this case, though, time was the key issue.
"This one was different, I got the call [about the McGovern case] at 3:30 and I wanted it out before the hearing the next day," said Finkelstein. "One of my chief assistants know [WSVN reporter] Patrick Fraser, and I know him as well, so we went that route. I needed it out that night and I knew that if the media wasn't watching this that Mr. McGovern didn't have a chance."
Of course Finkelstein knows Fraser. He reports the "Help Me Howard" segments. Finkelstein simply does commentary on the segments (for which is paid about $44,000 a year). He said that providing the video to Channel 7 has no bearing or impact on his job at the station.
"I don't get any benefit and it's certainly not anything I have done in the past," Finkelstein said. "This was just the quickest way to get it out."
He said the show allows him to "stick it to people with power and money" that violate the public trust. "It's not that big of a deal, I'm really like a legal prop," he said. "I stop by the station twice a week for five minutes. At most that's what it takes me to do a show, five minutes."
Not a bad gig. But again, Finkelstein has shown his value to the public by fighting for the little guy against a system that too often doesn't have a problem trampling over them.
"I have found myself at war with the county commission, the state attorney, and the sheriff," he says. "But when poor people who have it hard enough get shafted, it really pisses me off. Why do we stack the deck against them?"