Over the Edge and Under Investigation

On November 16, 1994, newly elected County Court Judge Ellen Venzer strolled into a $250-per-person AIDS fundraiser in Miami Beach without paying, scanned the crowd at the private home to see who was in attendance, and quickly recognized a recent acquaintance, William Ofgant, a retired IBM executive who maintains homes in Miami, New York, and Spain. Venzer approached Ofgant and the two began chatting. They had been introduced through a mutual friend several weeks earlier, and Ofgant was impressed by Venzer's command of issues and her desire to be a judge. At the fundraiser Ofgant congratulated Venzer on her recent victory. As the two talked, Ofgant noticed that Venzer was not paying attention to what he was saying but was instead scanning the crowd to see who else was present.

Venzer soon turned her attention to a woman standing across the room and asked Ofgant if he knew her. Of course he knew the woman, Ofgant offered; her name was Lynne Sachs. She was the fundraiser for an AIDS research group known as the Immunology and Retrovirology Research Institute (IRI), which was conducting studies into limiting the spread of HIV through a patient's immune system. In fact, Ofgant said, this was Sachs's event, with all the money going to IRI.

Venzer's attitude seemed to change instantly. She began telling Ofgant that one of her last cases as an attorney in private practice involved a lawsuit against Sachs. Venzer explained that Sachs had borrowed a large sum of money from her client, but rather than repay the debt she had filed for bankruptcy. "The way she said it," Ofgant would later state in an affidavit, "it made Lynne out to be a common thief."

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In a subsequent sworn statement, Ofgant added, "I don't know whether my mouth actually dropped open, but I was just stupefied by anyone telling me this information. First of all, to me, lawyers and clients have privileged information they share with one another, and Ellen and I knew one another only casually and in a social sense. And I couldn't conceive that anybody would divulge this information. And it was so vitriolic in what she was saying. It almost seemed like she wanted to tell me that for some purpose other than casual conversation, because she was quite specific, and specific detail and -- I don't know the word to express it, but vitriol is the best word that comes to my mind to explain the feeling that I had about her demeanor."

At the party Ofgant immediately confronted Sachs. "Up to that point in time, I thought I had done a very good detailed homework in getting to know and understand Lynne as a person, in a professional sense, and quite specifically with the organization she was dealing with," he recalled, "and I had nothing but the highest regard for her personally and professionally. And now, all of a sudden, I am given a set of details, pieces of information that were presented as a set of facts by a recently elected judge."

As Ofgant related his conversation with Venzer, Sachs's knees went weak. Six months earlier, in May 1994, Sachs had been sued by a woman who had once been her friend but over time, according to Sachs, had become romantically obsessed with her, even though Sachs is heterosexual. The woman, who was represented by Venzer, claimed she gave Sachs slightly more than $10,000 as a loan and that Sachs refused to repay it. Sachs argued that she had sold the woman $10,000 worth of jewelry and therefore didn't owe her a dime. Rather than fight the lawsuit, Sachs filed for bankruptcy a month later, rendering moot the legal proceedings against her.

By the time of the charity event, Sachs believed she had left the matter behind her. But suddenly here was Venzer, impugning her integrity to a potential donor -- at her own fundraiser. Sachs promised Ofgant she would give him her side of the story later, and then marched over to Venzer. "I told her I wanted to speak to her," Sachs recalled in a deposition taken earlier this year. "I took her aside and I said, 'You have walked into this party, this fundraiser for AIDS, you have not paid a penny, you were not invited, and you have walked up to one of my donors and you have slandered me.' And then she said, 'No I did not. I did not.' I remember so clearly. And I said, 'Oh, really?' And then I called Bill over. I just screamed his name: 'Bill come here!'

"Well, he started to come over and just at that point she saw what was happening and then she said, 'Okay, okay, I did say it.' And then I put my hand up to tell Bill to stay where he was." Sachs told Venzer she had spent months organizing this charity event. "And all I remember," Sachs added, "is that she kept smiling and she just went, 'I don't care about your job.' But the whole time she smiled, like she was above it all."

Later Sachs tried to explain to Ofgant why she had declared bankruptcy, but he remained suspicious of her and decided not to contribute to IRI. Sachs also claims that Venzer spent the rest of the fundraiser talking to Dr. Paula Sparti, a nationally recognized AIDS researcher based in Miami, who also served as the medical adviser for the IRI board of directors.

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