Sheila Alu sometimes feels like a marked woman. The Sunrise commissioner has been called a "rat" on blogs and newspaper websites, has been shunned at her day job as prosecutor in the State Attorney's Office, has lost friendships, and was personally attacked in a recent deposition.
Her sin: coming forward about gross misconduct on the part of a well-connected local judge.
Alu, a single mom first elected to office in 2001, came forward in New Times last year about Broward Circuit Judge Ana Gardiner's improper socializing with a prosecutor during a first-degree murder trial. As a result, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the death-penalty conviction of Omar Loureiro last week and ordered a new trial.
Although a number of courthouse insiders laud Alu for speaking out about a courthouse rife with abuse and corruption, she has gained no shortage of enemies for doing the right thing.
And real justice hasn't come. The erratic Gardiner, whose career has benefited from friendships with State Attorney Michael Satz and disgraced former Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne, has yet to be punished despite the fact that she had improper communication with a prosecutor and clearly violated a defendant's constitutional rights.
Worse, the judge demonstrably lied in an April 30 deposition in the Loureiro appeal when she denied much of Alu's story. In that deposition, Gardiner also made unseemly personal allegations against the Sunrise commissioner that Alu says are untrue.
The 46-year-old Alu says she's not sure if speaking out about Gardiner's misconduct was worth it. "I'll think I made the right decision if other people come forward when they see misconduct at the courthouse," she says. "If they don't, it wasn't worth it."
To understand why Alu came forward against Gardiner, why she put her career as a politician and prosecutor on the line, you have to go back to her childhood in Palm Beach County, where she grew up in an abusive and neglectful household and was put into foster care when she was 11.
She says she suffered terribly in state-supervised care, an experience that later motivated her to want to change the bureaucracy and fight corruption. But before she ever thought about politics, she wanted a family of her own. After a failed first marriage, she and second husband, Joe Alu, a Plantation police officer, had a daughter, Christina, in 1991.
Four years later, Joe Alu was blown up in a house explosion that severely burned him and another officer, Jim O'Hara. Two young girls were killed, as was their estranged and distraught father, who had poured gasoline throughout the house.
While caring for her husband, Alu learned that if he were unable to return to work, the city's health coverage would run out for the family. Her fight to change that put her in the public eye. "Go to the mayor's office," she told the Sun-Sentinel. "Go bang down his door."
A political career was born. Her effort ended after a triumphant trip to Washington, D.C., where she watched then-President Bill Clinton sign the Alu-O'Hara Public Safety Officer Benefits Act on the lawn of the Rose Garden.
The issue also led Alu to become politically involved at the local level. In 2001, she won election to the Sunrise commission.
During her first term, she met lobbyist Ali Waldman, the girlfriend and lawyer for land baron Ron Bergeron. Waldman was leader of a group of political women who called themselves the Steel Magnolias. Alu joined the club, which also included state Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff and political operative Mary Fertig.
The women were hyped at one time in the media as corruption fighters, and Alu took the role to heart. "I thought the Magnolias were about ridding Broward of corruption and putting incorruptible people into office," she says. "I really believed that."
Alu, who divorced Joe Alu in 2004, and Waldman became close. Alu says she looked up to Waldman, who encouraged her to enroll in law school at Nova Southeastern University. Waldman often brought Alu to Bergeron's expansive ranch, Green Glades, and the women were seen at dinners and charities all around town.
But Alu knew that Waldman lobbied local governments on behalf of clients, including the superwealthy Bergeron. She says she told Waldman never to lobby her on Sunrise matters or the friendship would have to end.
"We had an explicit oral agreement, 'You don't lobby me, we don't do any business together, we're just best friends,' " says Alu.
There were a few gifts above the $100 limit she was allowed to receive. In 2005, she had Waldman and Bergeron over to her house for dinner. When Bergeron saw that only one burner worked on her stove, he had a new one delivered for $1,200. Alu properly disclosed the gift on state forms.
She didn't see anything wrong with it because she never used her political office to help Bergeron or Waldman. And neither of them ever asked. Until 2007.