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The Santucci Incident

Fort Lauderdale attorney Michael Santucci went missing for a couple of days in April last year.

Benjamin reportedly ran a check and found that Michael Santucci had used his credit card in Pompano Beach, according to sources. Santucci was believed to be in a silver Mazda owned by his wife's parents in Doral.

That evening, April 10, several members of BSO's Regional Anti-Crime Squad, all wearing black and gold tactical uniforms, came across a silver Mazda in an empty lot in Pompano Beach, according to BSO reports.

Among the four detectives was Andrea Penoyer, who was recently featured on the reality-TV show Police Women of Broward County. Inside the car they found Joe Kennerly, an admitted drug addict, with a crack pipe in his hand. In the back seat was a woman named Maite Polomny.

Kennerly and Polomny led the detectives back to an apartment, where they found Michael Santucci and a fourth person who remains unidentified. Sources say there was

drug paraphernalia in the apartment.

Santucci was transported to the district office in Pompano, say sources. Then someone there contacted Benjamin, who responded to the district office and took Michael Santucci away, sources say. The Mazda belonging to Santucci's in-laws wasn't impounded.

Only Kennerly was arrested. He was charged with possession of cocaine and drug paraphernalia. Kennerly would later plead guilty to the first count and was sentenced to five years' probation and ordered into drug rehabilitation.

In arrest and incident reports, written by BSO Det. Sean Andrews, there is no mention whatsoever of Michael Santucci. The only official evidence that he was involved are mentions of the Mazda and its license plate number, V081ZG, which is easily traced to Santucci's in-laws (they have since sold the car).

"Benjamin came in and took him out and voided everything," says former BSO Dep. Russell Di Perna. "Deputies were intimidated by Dave Benjamin."

One problem is, there is no verification of what happened that night because it has never been investigated. To this day, BSO is mum about the entire incident. On Wednesday, I asked sheriff's spokesman Jim Leljedal for comment and information on the case. He said he would look into it and, on Thursday afternoon, Leljedal told me, "I can't discuss it."

Leljedal answers to Arthur Santucci, who serves as executive director of external affairs. Calls left with Arthur and Michael Santucci and Lt. Benjamin went unreturned as of this morning.

Di Perna says he learned of the case from fellow deputy John Bailen, a union representative. He said that Det. Meghan Brooks went to Bailen about the incident after deputies in Pompano came to her with concerns about the Santucci incident. 

I contacted Bailen, who refused to comment on the case.

Di Perna says he tried to expose Benjamin's actions, as did Bailen. Both deputies also backed Scott Israel in the election last year, causing more friction with Benjamin, who was heavily involved in Lamberti's political efforts.

A couple of weeks before the election, Benjamin contacted Bailen and threatened him in an expletive-laced phone message. The phone message was taped and was recently played in an arbitration case involving another deputy, making it public record. I was able to hear a copy of the recording, which Benjamin left about 12:35 a.m. on October 19, 2008, a Sunday morning. In it, Benjamin says, "You might want to keep your fucking mouth shut," before hanging up the phone.

Di Perna told me that Bailen took the recording to his supervisors and that nobody ever did anything about it or the allegations regarding the original Santucci incident.  

"Until this day, nothing has been done," says Di Perna. "Why is this guy [Benjamin] still active? Why is he still working?"

Benjamin is still employed, but he's been rocked by the Rothstein implosion. First we learned that the lieutenant escorted Rothstein to his jet when he fled the country for Morocco (with about $500,000 in stolen money). Rothstein also helped Benjamin set up a consulting company that Benjamin apparently didn't report to superiors. Rothstein funded Benjamin's company with $30,000, according to a source close to the situation at the time.

In light of those revelations, Benjamin was first taken from his role of running internal affairs at the department. BSO is also investigating his consulting business, and on Wednesday, he was transferred out of central command into youth services, a huge step down.

But Benjamin is still, indeed, working. Di Perna was fired on September 29 after Benjamin worked an internal affairs case against him that Di Perna claims came in retaliation for speaking out about the Santucci case and for supporting Israel in the election. Bailen has also been disciplined and is currently on administrative desk duty. I'll write more about those cases later. What clearly emerges is that politics and law enforcement don't mix well. Some of the dirty and underhanded things that occurred during the last sheriff's election -- on both sides -- provide a resounding argument to move to a system wherein the sheriff is appointed rather than elected.

In the meantime, I think it's clear that a long-belated investigation of the Santucci incident must be conducted, preferably by an agency other than BSO, which has proven itself unable or unwilling to police itself. The details are still murky, but there is possible official misconduct and obstruction involved in this case. All communications made by Benjamin and other participants from that night need to be examined. Who was contacted about the Santucci pickup? What was Arthur Santucci's role? Was Undersheriff Tom Wheeler contacted? And what did Sheriff Lamberti know, and when did he know it?

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman

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