Grudge Match

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

For the past ten years Howard Kaufman has devoted his extra time and money to kids in Miami Beach. He taught tennis to children whose parents couldn't afford private lessons, teenagers who hung out at North Shore Park after school, and recent immigrants moving into the neighborhood near 73rd Street and Harding Avenue. Some of these children developed into tennis champions; for example, Tammy Encina, who took her first tennis stroke under Kaufman's guidance, won a USTA national clay court championship at age fourteen.

Kaufman began giving free lessons in 1986 as a volunteer for the City of Miami Beach. A semiretired financial consultant and father of three daughters, the 71-year-old Kaufman says his work with youngsters provided a public service that was lacking in the area, and he was just doing his part to better the community. "I've never done anything as rewarding as working with these kids," he bellows. "I tell you, I don't like adults; I don't. I love kids and I want to continue to help them."

But Kaufman's long-standing volunteer project was halted on August 12, 1996, when he was arrested at the North Shore Park Tennis Center for theft because he refused to pay the hourly court fee of $2.67. He was also charged with trespassing for refusing to leave the court; he continued to teach one of his students and used dozens of tennis balls from his own basket. Richard Johnston, the tennis pro and manager of the park, told police that Kaufman had been warned repeatedly to pay for court time and to use no more than three tennis balls. Kaufman countered that he had a contract with the city to use the courts for free while teaching kids. "Go ahead and arrest me," Kaufman told police officer Mike Hernandez, "so I can have this documented and get Johnston fired."

The arrest was the climax of six years of often bitter acrimony between Kaufman and Johnston. Kaufman's supporters -- most of the juniors who regularly play at the courts and some of the old-timers -- believe Kaufman's arrest was simply a vendetta by Johnston, a 32-year-old who charges $34 an hour for private lessons and eyes Kaufman as competition. Since Johnston began at the park in 1990, players say he's been envious of Kaufman's success and popularity with the kids. These same supporters say Johnston's a humorless man, indifferent about kids unless they're paying for lessons and contributing to his paycheck.

Kaufman, on the other hand, is generous because he truly cares, according to sixteen-year-old Dustin James. "I used to hang around with kids who did drugs, but I don't now because of Howard. He's been like a dad," James attests. "Richard's trying to match up with Howard, but he can't. Howard's the man. Richard's a kiss-ass."

A gossip column appearing in the the Miami Herald August 19 reflected the sense of outrage over the arrest. "An abomination of justice," declared Jack Bennett; "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be playing tennis," stated Tammy Encina; "He shouldn't have been arrested. He deserved a pat on the back," weighed in Mayor Seymour Gelber, a friend of Kaufman.

Six months after the arrest the controversy lingers, with the same people quoted in the Herald still proclaiming injustice. "Here is a man who gave 110 percent of himself towards the life development of economically deprived children," offers Bennett, who's been going to the park since the Fifties. He says the neighborhood has gone from affluent to looking like "the South Bronx with palm trees."

"Howard asked nothing in return," Bennett adds, "and for this admirable effort he was subjected to arrest, ridicule, and the stress of several court appearances, courtesy of a couple of envious, narrow-minded, selfish individuals representing the City of Miami Beach."

The city officials he's referring to are Johnston and Kevin Smith, director of recreation, culture, and parks. Johnston has remained relatively mum about his ordeal with Kaufman. "Due to the fact that it's an administrative issue, I like to follow the chain of command," he explains. Smith says he told Johnston to keep quiet, and has been reticent himself. He puts on a hard, defensive stare. Smith concedes that it didn't look good to arrest a volunteer of Kaufman's age for something apparently so petty, though he approved of calling the police.

The whole situation with Kaufman has proved to be an embarrassing conundrum as well as bad public relations for Smith's department. Now, after years of soft-pedaling the Kaufman problem, Smith rather suddenly claims he was forced to have him arrested and then, "looking for an amicable solution," to drop the charges. For four years, Smith has responded tentatively to the imbroglio, fearing a backlash against him and his department for apparently bullying a nice old man who is trying to help kids.

Kaufman calls Smith his real nemesis, describing him as an insidious and manipulative politician. "Smith reminds me of [Newt] Gingrich -- he's very sharp and he got me into this conflict with Johnston so it wouldn't be between me and him," he believes. "Smith decided that he was going to get rid of this little guy that was bothering him. He thought when he arrested me and I had to go to criminal court that I would say 'Okay' and go away. But with me they had the wrong guy."

Kaufman refused to plea-bargain to the charges. The city settled the case on December 10 rather than proceed to trial, which would have drawn more unwanted media attention. City officials agreed to drop the charges in exchange for Kaufman's waiving any right to sue the city.

A review of all city documents relating to the squabble reveals a file of approximately 150 pages of memorandums and correspondence that show the true extent of Kaufman's transgressions at the tennis courts and the city's inability to budge him. At the heart of the conflict is a classic grudge match between Kaufman and Johnston, two tennis instructors with very different personalities, fighting for the attention of the kids. Like Kaufman, Johnston professes an intense interest in children. "I can tell you this much," Johnston said in one of his few comments for this story. "I love the kids. I love them with a passion, and have helped a zillion of them."

Both purport to be the best role model/tennis instructor for young people. Kaufman cites the accomplishments of his students, most notably Encina and Randy Raskin, who won state honors and earned tennis scholarships to Miami-Dade Community College and Auburn University. Johnston counters that he, unlike Kaufman, has actually played tennis professionally (on the satellite circuit) and is certified to teach.

Both criticize the other as an incompetent teacher and a menace to youngsters. Johnston is insensitive and selfish with kids, Kaufman rails. Kaufman fosters disrespect and encourages kids to flout the rules and regulations of the park, argues Johnston.

Now many call the pair petty, vindictive, and unsportsmanlike. Their feud has deteriorated into taunts, heckles, tits for tats, plots, trickery, and shouting matches, all of which have factionalized the park and disturbed the peace.

One of Johnston's few youthful supporters, fifteen-year-old Leo Figueira, claims some of Kaufman's "hoodlums" have threatened to beat him up if he didn't drop Johnston as a coach and join Kaufman. Figueira says Kaufman "bribes" poor kids with money, candy, tennis shoes, and racquets. "He's jealous because he's not the tennis pro here -- he wants power. I think it's quite disgusting," Figueira says. "Richard stands for principle. He's the manager who enforces the rules, and Howard tells the kids, 'Fuck him, don't listen to him.'"

For years Johnston had been asking his bosses to terminate Kaufman's volunteer status and to prohibit him from teaching kids at the park. Kaufman has called and written city officials dozens of times to complain about Johnston's management style.

"Mr. Kaufman's difficult relationship with the Parks and Recreation Department has become legendary," former City Manager Roger Carlton wrote to Mayor Gelber. "The bottom line of this situation is that Mr. Kaufman's forceful personality, in conjunction with his dedication to helping youth and his inability to adjust from being a business executive to a volunteer, continuously strains relationships. [But] I do not question his good heart and motivations at all."

From his twelfth-floor office suite on Lincoln Road, Kaufman has a view north over the convention center, west to the bay, and east to the ocean. His office is paper-messy and cluttered with boxes and computer parts. On the walls are framed photographs of his daughters, pictures of him posing at charitable events (including one with Jerry Lewis), and a couple of him on a tennis court with youth teams.

He has a proprietary air and a cocky manner; he's likely to kick a Wilson tennis shoe up on the desk and another on a chair. A floppy tennis hat, his signature, matches the color of his shock-white mustache. Trim, strong, and of medium height, Kaufman can be engaging and articulate one minute, blustery the next. He talks like a tough from the streets of Philadelphia, where he was beaten up by a gang of boys in his youth because of his Jewish faith. He's still a scrapper.

For many years in Miami Beach, Kaufman has been accustomed to getting his way. In the Seventies he took a stand against sex education being taught to his daughter's sixth-grade class and successfully had her removed from the class -- the only parent to do so. In the Eighties he helped spearhead the successful anti-casino effort, debating in public against legalized gambling. He was also an advocate for controversial developments like the Rebecca Towers senior citizens' home and the then-new convention center. Cultivating few allies and making many enemies, he was nevertheless influential. Not only was he a civic hellion, Kaufman also worked with many charitable organizations, including presiding over the South Florida Red Cross fundraising drive in the Sixties for the burgeoning state of Israel.

Kaufman's involvement in tennis began in December 1985, after a serious disagreement with the management of Miami Beach's Bayshore Golf Course. After failing in his annual effort, as president of the golf association, to stop green fees from being raised, he vowed never to play golf there again -- which he had been doing every day for twenty years -- until new management took over. The next day at about 4:00 p.m. Kaufman drove from his mid-Miami Beach home to North Shore Park. He saw two thirteen-year-old boys playing tennis and, ever gregarious, introduced himself and gave them pointers. His own proficiency was at the novice level, but no matter -- "Forget about it," he likes to say. He knew the game and understood children. An agreement he struck with then-assistant city manager Ron Rumbaugh allowed him free use of courts to teach children whose families could not afford professional lessons. Also, under the terms of the written agreement, students would be referred to Kaufman by "city tennis personnel," he would be allowed use of lights for one hour, and the agreement could be terminated at any time.

The first sign of discontent with Kaufman came one month before Johnston joined as manager. In May 1990, 51 adults and children petitioned the city for Kaufman's ouster as coach. Even his stalwart friend Jack Bennett signed the petition. The tennis players charged that Kaufman was an unqualified and uncredentialed instructor, discriminated against kids of lesser ability, didn't teach proper discipline or etiquette, and never attended the team's matches.

The petition ended with a plea to "make Howard Kaufman pay a membership fee and for lights if he wants to use the courts, like every other person in North Shore Park." The recreation director at the time, William Irvine, acted immediately and canceled the agreement with Kaufman. But in the first of several refusals to relinquish his coaching role without a fight, Kaufman wrote Irvine and charged that the petition's accusations were outright lies. He called it a fabricated product of one disgruntled parent. Kaufman told Irvine that he did not know the petitioners and questioned whether they were "legitimate residents," since no addresses were given. Irvine apparently relented because Kaufman continued to teach, although no letter has ever been filed reinstating his volunteer status with the city.

Johnston's arrival as tennis manager was greeted optimistically by Irvine, who told Kaufman in a letter, "I am sure that you'll agree that his energy and enthusiasm with regard to tennis can only enhance existing programs. I trust you will cooperate with Mr. Johnston in providing these programs to all interested youths."

By the summer of 1994, four years into their relationship, Kaufman and Johnston had long abandoned any pretense of civility. "Mr. Kaufman constantly barges into the office without asking and usually makes a couple of calls," Johnston wrote to Smith. "He went ballistic at my very first sentence, which entailed that he ask city personnel to use the phone. He then went berserk once again after I told him it was the courteous thing to do."

Johnston typed a letter to Kaufman a week later, reminding him that his volunteer privileges had been terminated in 1990. "We cordially invite you to play tennis at North Shore, but we request that you purchase a tennis membership or pay hourly fees," Johnston wrote. But the letter was vetoed by city officials. The unidentified author of a note attached to the letter explained, "Kevin [Smith] reluctant to do so -- Howard Kaufman would stir great amount of commotion (recreation department against kids) -- can understand (Kevin's) point of view. But future problems will occur."

Meanwhile, Kaufman dashed off two letters on letterhead stationery from his Lincoln Road office. One to Smith denounced the "deteriorating atmosphere" at the park and cited as examples the lack of a restroom key, the abolishment of the twenty-year-old sign-up board, and no access to the office telephone for his students. "I believe, after our extensive conversations, that you do not appreciate the delicacy of handling children. Yes, delicacy," Kaufman scolds Smith. In the second letter, to Mayor Gelber, Kaufman first listed his students' accomplishments in tournaments and in school before criticizing Smith. Gelber wrote Kaufman thanking him for his support of the youth tennis program but sidestepped the criticism of Smith as "more on process than philosophy..., housekeeping items that can be worked out."

While Kaufman was being consoled by the mayor, Johnston's woes continued. On July 15, 1994, he filed this beseechment with his bosses: "To put it mildly, I have been stressed significantly. Howard Kaufman constantly berates, beleaguers, and defames my character. For example, while I was giving a FREE lesson to two kids, he sat on the bench and bad-mouthed me. He has had a direct impact on my ability to make a decent income. Kaufman continues to go on the courts without signing in or paying. I foresee continued problems with Howard Kaufman."

The tennis instructors continued to exchange a series of volleys toward the end of 1994 and beginning of 1995:

*Johnston had posted notices that the park would close early on Veteran's Day, at 6:00 p.m., but when it did, Kaufman created a "big scene and threatened to go to the city commission" about the park closing," Johnston stated in a memo. "He worked the sidelines and tried to get the public as agitated as he was." Kaufman wrote to Carlton: "The happenings at our tennis facility defy understanding. Police are routinely called to discipline little boys who haven't done anything that a capable employee or park manager couldn't have handled.... With our city inundated with new children from all over the world, from every economic background, what we need is imagination and creativity. The attitude of your recreation department is deplorable. I am trying to find some spark, some feeling in my city for some kids."

*Around Christmas, Johnston considered suing Kaufman for defamation and slander: "I am sick and tired of Howard Kaufman shooting off his mouth."

*Kaufman railed against shoddy court maintenance and a new policy that said kids couldn't play under the lights at night because they should be home.

*Johnston accused Kaufman of teaching an "affluent child (her father drives a Lexus)" contrary to "City of Miami Beach guidelines," and sabotaging his work by "going on and on for a couple hours to many patrons about how I should not be here." (Kaufman admits that some of his students are from rather well-to-do families. "Why should kids be denied?" he argues. "We should make them feel welcome.")

*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."

Johnston remained relatively quiet for about a year, until the day of Kaufman's arrest. In a report he titled "Incident at North Shore Tennis Center," he sounded like a new man, one who has finally surmounted a great problem. Unlike in his previous letters, frantic and pleading, Johnston was coolly detached and confident. He began by explaining that three days earlier, on a Friday, he had handed Kaufman a tennis membership application and told him he had to pay to use the courts. Of course, Kaufman ignored him.

Then: "On Monday at 4:18 p.m., I went over to Howard Kaufman's court with a city employee (Tania Gelabert), greeted him nicely, and told him he owed $2.67. He refused to pay."

Johnston continued, a tone of vindication, even triumph, in his memorandum: "He challenged me to call the police and also stated that he spoke with Kevin Smith that morning and Smith said if I call the police on him I would get fired. Having known Mr. Kaufman for years, I called his bluff." Johnston called the police.

"I stated that 'Mr. Kaufman is to pay for the court and use three balls,'" Johnston wrote. "Mr. Kaufman tried to change the issue, but I would not stand for it." The police were called.

Rather than defeat him, however, the arrest empowered Kaufman. Two days later he returned to the courts. He resumed his old schedule of arriving at about 4:00 p.m., though now he resigned himself to the sidelines. Kaufman's retreat gave the impression that he had given up teaching on the courts, when in fact he was biding his time. On December 11, the day after the city dropped the theft and trespassing charges in a vain hope that Kaufman would gratefully follow their rules, Kaufman stepped onto a court with a student and began playing. Amazed at Kaufman's temerity, Johnston confronted him and gave the familiar ultimatum: Pay up or leave. Kaufman refused, but walked off the court before the police arrived. A tennis attendant told Smith she heard Kaufman shout at Johnston: "You are an asshole!"

Johnston cranked out a longhand letter to Smith: "After the police left Howard started speaking with me. He said that 'You are not very bright. I just might have three votes on the commission and they just might put pressure on the city manager. You just might lose your job.' He said that after the holidays I will get slapped with a civil suit unless I leave him alone.... He said, 'I just might do it. You'll have to pay for an attorney and that will cost you.'

"This is the type of tactics Howard Kaufman has used on me for over five years. I did not sleep well last night due to this incident. No matter how much I try to stay away from Mr. Kaufman he creates incidents."

Within a week Kaufman wrote Mayor Gelber and met with Police Chief Richard Barreto, expressing to both his surprise and disappointment with the city's actions. Barreto said Kaufman relayed "several incidents involving the behavior of Mr. Johnston ... and then affirmed that he was only volunteering his time to help the needy children in that area." A few weeks later, city officials held another round of talks with Kaufman, and this time Assistant City Manager Joseph Pinon asked him to comply with the rules of the tennis center -- scheduling lessons, obtaining fee waivers for children from poor families, and abiding by proper court etiquette. Smith even said he would go easy on him by not requiring a teaching certificate. But, according to Smith, Kaufman responded that "the rules that apply to the people who buy permits or pay court fees don't apply to me."

Kaufman is sitting in a nearly empty commission chamber at Miami Beach City Hall, where after the lunch recess he plans to publicly air his troubles. He expects those listening to react with indignant outrage and to help correct the injustice.

"Listen to me," he tells a New Times reporter. "You make me out to be the nicest sonofabitch that ever lived. The old volunteer helping underprivileged kids who is being pushed out by an insensitive, abusive city administration."

The chamber fills and Kaufman grips the podium. Like always, he's wearing the white floppy tennis hat. He appears downcast and begins speaking in a dispirited tone.

"I'm very grateful to the City of Miami Beach for having entered into an agreement with me that many of you don't even know exists. It was called the Youth Tennis Program for the City of Miami Beach at North Shore Park. It's for zero dollars -- they wanted to pay me a dollar a year; I refused -- and it's cancellable by either party, which is agreeable to me and has been at all times."

After making this remarkable admission, Kaufman starts to rehash his arrest but is prompted to finish by Mayor Gelber. Kaufman: "I hope you'll give me time to finish, Mr. Mayor."

Gelber: "Well, I hope you'll finish."
Kaufman drops the arrest and digresses to "about ten years ago, when I stopped coming to the commission." There's a collective roll of the eyes from the commissioners and staff. "If you knew me then, you would know that I was at every commission meeting, almost every one," Kaufman continues. "During that time I developed the reputation for being a troublemaker. The reason that I was called a troublemaker -- or two or three of them, I'd like to mention them to you if I might --"

Gelber: "Howard, you're going to have to finish your statement."
His voice suddenly booming, Kaufman rips a sheet of paper from his notebook and raises it in the air. "Somebody offered somebody $300 to write a nasty letter about me. I notified every member of this commission because I sent a copy of my letter to the administration about it. Nobody ever investigated that deplorable, disgusting act. I think it's indicative of a conspiracy within the city to get me out of that park. This letter was written by an employee of the administration. Now if that's the way you want me to finish --"

Gelber: "Thank you sir, and good day."
Kaufman: "And I would further request that an investigation be made of this deplorable act. I don't know whether or not this is a violation of the law --"

Gelber: "Would you please step back now and allow us to continue the meeting?"

Kaufman: "And I'm very disappointed in you and in all the members of this committee."

Gelber: "Thank you, sir. Good day."

Though not every day, as before his arrest, Kaufman continues to teach kids tennis without paying for the court. One day last week, after he was asked to leave the court by a tennis attendant, Kaufman claims Johnston began taking photographs -- "evidence" -- of him playing.

"They got me where they want me," Kaufman says. "They've curtailed my activity and they're harassing me as much as they can. They're restricting the kids' right to use the phone again. We're back to square one already."

Kaufman shows no sign of giving up or going away. And Smith, who in late December said he had drafted a letter to Kaufman that would unequivocally revoke his volunteer status, now says that he is "rewriting" the letter. He says he's in a squeeze between the public's perception of Kaufman as the jolly-good volunteer and the hardball reality that he is the greatest nuisance the recreation department has ever encountered.

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