Grudge Match

Feuding Miami Beach tennis instructors Richard Johnston and Howard Kaufman need to find a new racket, before there's another arrest

*Tennis attendant Magda Furr entered the fray on the side of Johnston with a letter to the city: "Howard Kaufman has told me that 'Richard Johnston is the worst tennis instructor anyone could have.'"

The two began the new year with a squabble over use of the ball machine. Johnston maintained that the machine was an essential teaching tool and also attracted new students. Kaufman warned that Johnston's use of the machine raised a "liability issue." Johnston urged his bosses not to listen to Kaufman: "It's just a ploy to stop my kids from using the ball machines."

Three days later Johnston recounted a prank to his bosses. He told of two snickering girls whom Kaufman had put up to ask him for a free lesson but who never showed up. He said Kaufman later "boasted to me" about sending over the girls. "The mental harassment has been going on for over four years," Johnston wrote to then-recreation department superintendent Alan Ricke. "I am a person of great inner strength, but there is a limit to how much anyone can take. I often can't fall asleep at night and when I do, I often wake up in the middle of the night. I will continue to stand up for what is right. I just hope that I don't end up in the hospital with stress disorder." Kaufman denies putting the girls up to a prank. "Johnston's a congenital liar. He's a disease," spits Kaufman. "He should not be allowed to be in contact with children. Forget his ability, he's a liar. He wouldn't know the truth if he stumbled on it."

Even while begging for relief, Johnston got more grief from Kaufman, who made the most damaging allegation against him in early 1995. In a letter to City Attorney Larry Feingold, he accused Johnston of withholding a week's pay from a temporary assistant, Mark Gratt. Johnston responded quickly to Smith: "Mark Gratt is [privately] employed by me for summer tennis camp. The matter in question has been resolved with Mr. Gratt."

The matter was not resolved, however, until after four months of wrangling. Kaufman alleged that Johnston offered to pay Gratt the $300 he owed him on the condition that Gratt write a derogatory letter about Kaufman to city officials -- and Gratt refused. Johnston explained that he repeatedly offered Gratt a check but he refused to take it. Johnston implied that Gratt declined the paycheck because he didn't feel entitled to it.

The Gratt controversy came to an ignoble end April 13, 1995, with a memorandum to Feingold from Carlton, who concluded that the dispute between Johnston and Gratt was none of the city's business since Gratt was not a city employee. That same morning, Smith, Johnston, assistant recreation director Sugar Firtel, and Kaufman met to discuss recurring trouble at North Shore Park. Later that day, Kaufman faxed Gelber a note that begins, "The saga continues. I was advised by Mr. Smith that I could no longer teach tennis at North Shore Park." Then he sent a thoughtful two-page letter to Carlton. The problem, he explained, is not between him and the city, but rather a disagreement "started by the recreation department because of my philosophy of how the city should or shouldn't interact with the community. Especially in the matter of volunteers and the handling of children."

"Thankfully I can afford to be a volunteer," Kaufman continued. "But if that means I must accept verbal defamatory abuse orchestrated by the recreation department [then] I must decline."

Carlton advised Kaufman to "take a deep breath or two and apologize in writing." But, though Carlton said Kaufman accepted his advice, he actually ignored it and launched yet another campaign that won concessions from the city on his much-harped-about use of the tennis center telephone. Thrusting ahead, Kaufman wrote a letter to the editor of the Miami Herald lambasting Smith for "discouraging juniors, who can't afford to pay, from using the tennis park. He took an atmosphere that encouraged all children to come and learn and play and in no time destroyed it." The letter goes on to mention the sins against his kids -- from cutting off night play to prohibiting the use of the office telephone.

The letter got the city's attention, and on September 21, 1995, Assistant City Manager Mayra Diaz-Buttacavoli met with Kaufman. Diaz-Buttacavoli immediately instructed Smith to send Kaufman a letter "summarizing why he is no longer, in any capacity, working at the North Shore Tennis Center."

That order would seem unambiguously firm, but that's not how it was conveyed to Kaufman in an October 9 letter from Smith's assistant, Sugar Firtel. She informed Kaufman that she had investigated his concerns and that telephone privileges for all children would be granted. "Thank you for your continued concerns regarding the North Shore Tennis Center and our youth programming," Firtel wrote, ending with: "Again, your concerns for the youth of our community and our tennis center operation will continue to provide only constructive tools in the progress of our recreation division."

Only indirectly does Firtel mention Kaufman's free use of courts. "I am enclosing several copies of our new fiscal year tennis permit application for your personal application and distribution to regular court users, junior or adult."

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