The Racket Club

There's good money to be made in the game of insurance fraud. Maybe that's why some greedy people are so willing to hustle for clients, fake injuries, stage car accidents, and tell lies.

At that point Norman and Brett Panter made a hasty exit. And as for the mystery witnesses Norman had supposedly uncovered -- it turned out there weren't any. The family filed a complaint with the Florida Bar against Brett Panter, a former member of the board of directors of the Dade County Bar Association. Nine months later a Bar grievance committee met to analyze Panter's conduct. During the June 1989 hearing, the attorney tried to shrug off the affair as the honest mistake of a father who just wanted his son to succeed.

At one point during the hearing, a member of the grievance committee pressed Brett Panter to see if he understood that it was wrong to attempt to recruit a client by sending flowers to a funeral home. But the attorney seemed less concerned with ethics than with business, given that the family had been angered:

GRIEVANCE COMMITTEE: Let me ask you a question. Do you feel the sending of those flowers to that family was inappropriate, by your father?

PANTER: It probably wasn't the smartest thing in the world to do, to get somebody mad at you, I guess. Obviously they are mad.

GRIEVANCE COMMITTEE: Do you feel that that's inappropriate behavior on behalf of your father to send flowers to a family that he does not know for someone who has been killed?

PANTER: From what [my father] told me, he had a very nice conversation with [the Gough family on the phone] and he said [he sent the flowers] out of humanitarian reasons. So under those circumstances, no. If he didn't know them or have any contact, yes. But he said he had that conversation.

GRIEVANCE COMMITTEE: I don't know how you can say that with a straight face, that it was for humanitarian reasons....

PANTER: Obviously he wanted me to get the case. It's obvious he wanted me to get the case. But I certainly wouldn't tell him to send flowers, I can tell you that.

But business cards were a different matter. Panter acknowledged during the hearing he gave his father free access to the 5000 business cards he had printed.

PANTER: My father is a very gregarious type of person. He can talk to anybody of any race, creed, or color. Anyone -- from a janitor to the president. And he does that and gives them a handful of cards. He gives ten cards to one person. It's not like he gives one card to one person. He gives them out in quantity.

GRIEVANCE COMMITTEE: Don't you think that's hustling?
PANTER: It's embarrassing, if you want to know the truth.
GRIEVANCE COMMITTEE: It's not embarrassing if you make out 5000 cards?

(Although the matter was never discussed or made a part of the grievance committee hearing, those business cards apparently had a way of turning up in the strangest places. Six months before Gough was killed by the street sweeper, Eugene Rubin, a toll-taker on State Road 836, was struck and seriously injured by an ambulance rushing through the toll plaza. The day after the accident, Rubin's daughter, Judy Schlosser, received a phone call at her home in Massapequa, New York, from a man who identified himself as Norman. "Norman further identified himself as a private investigator and stated that his son was a lawyer," Schlosser wrote in a sworn statement for the state Department of Insurance. "Norman proceeded to tell me how they could handle the case and even offered to pay my plane fare to Florida."

(Within a matter of days, Schlosser flew down from New York on her own. "I came to Miami to be with my father, and either on the first or second day that I saw him in the hospital, I found a business card in his hand," she wrote. "I recognized this card as belonging to Norman and his son and was very upset about it. At that time my father was incoherent and could not have spoken to whoever placed the business card in his hand." When Schlosser tried to discover who had been in her father's room, a nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital told her that two men, whom she believed to be attorneys, had been there to visit him.

(John Askins, who investigated Schlosser's claim for the Florida Department of Insurance, later tried to interview Brett Panter about her statement. "When asked whether or not he had a plausible explanation for approaching Eugene Rubin at Jackson Memorial and leaving his business card, Brett Panter stated he would not make any statement whatsoever prior to consulting with a criminal defense attorney," Askins wrote in a report regarding Schlosser's complaint. The next day Askins added, "Attorney Richard Sharpstein telephoned and advised that he represents Brett Panter and Panter will not be making any statements." The criminal investigation against Panter was subsequently closed because of a "lack of sufficient evidence.")

Despite the apparent dismay of the grievance committee over Brett Panter's actions in the case involving Leigh Ann Gough, the disciplinary process against him dragged on for another two years until finally, in March 1991, Panter struck a deal with the Bar in which he agreed to accept what some consider to be the Bar's version of a slap on the wrist A a public reprimand. (See sidebar on page 16 for more details regarding the Florida Bar's disciplinary process.)

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