By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
Sachs says she is certain Venzer repeated the tale to Sparti, because within days of the event Sparti openly criticized Sachs during a board meeting. (Sparti does recall Venzer saying something to her at the fundraiser about a lawsuit against Sachs but, she says, it was "nothing I really remember or recall.")
Two months later Sachs was fired from IRI. With its fundraising efforts in disarray, IRI closed its doors six months later.
Rather than sue IRI for wrongful discharge, Sachs filed a lawsuit against Judge Venzer, accusing her of slander and tortious interference with a business relationship. Venzer declined to be interviewed for this story, but one of her attorneys, Scott Feder, denied that the judge did anything wrong. "She did say something to the effect that Ms. Sachs didn't pay a debt and filed bankruptcy to avoid it," Feder said. "Everything Judge Venzer said is absolutely the truth."
Having run unopposed for a vacant seat, Ellen Sue Venzer was sworn in as a county court judge in January 1995. Her stepfather, Circuit Court Judge Richard Feder, who has served on the bench for nearly 30 years, administered the oath of office.
While the 34-year-old Venzer professionally prospered, Sachs found herself unemployed and broke. At IRI she earned $48,000 per year; today she works as a receptionist at a local bank for $8.25 per hour. As a result she has been forced to move out of her apartment and sell her car and her furniture. She now rents a room in a friend's house for $125 per month.
Sachs expected a more promising future when she moved to Florida from New York in 1992. Her interest in nonprofit groups led her to several organizations, from the local chapter of the American Red Cross to the New World Symphony. Then she settled into a high-profile position as executive director of SAVE (Safeguarding American Values for Everyone), a local group formed in 1992 to fight a proposed statewide referendum limiting the rights of homosexuals.
When supporters of the measure failed to collect enough signatures to place the referendum on the ballot, and her assistance was no longer needed at SAVE, Sachs accepted the job of development director for the Immunology and Retrovirology Research Institute. She believed this just might be her ideal job. So many of her friends, she says, had died of AIDS that she was eager to work on the project.
The November 1994 fundraiser was her first major event for the group, and as far as she was concerned, Venzer ruined everything -- including her life. So Sachs hired an attorney, who contacted Venzer and conveyed Sachs's belief that the judge was liable for damages. On December 19, 1995, Venzer's insurance company, through its Miami attorney John McClure, offered to settle the dispute with Sachs for $20,000. Sachs rejected the offer, believing it to be inadequate. In addition, she says, she sought the vindication that would come through a public trial.
In the weeks that followed, two of Sachs's witnesses told her they had been approached by friends of Venzer who allegedly wanted one of them to change his story and the other to actually testify against Sachs. County Judge Victoria Sigler called a mutual friend, Damian Pardo, to see if he would be willing to testify as a character witness against Sachs. Pardo, who had worked with Sachs at SAVE, says he refused and that Sigler then dropped the matter. (Sigler referred questions to her attorney, who would not comment.)
Sachs also claims that Venzer tried to influence her star witness, William Ofgant, who told Sachs he had been contacted by attorney Steven Cronig, the man who had introduced Ofgant to Venzer. Cronig acknowledges he talked to Ofgant after he learned Ofgant had signed an affidavit on behalf of Sachs: "I did speak with him and I said, 'What the hell are you doing? You are going to get us both in the Herald.'" But Cronig adamantly denies he contacted Ofgant at Venzer's behest or that he asked Ofgant to change his story. "Absolute bullshit," he insists, "and you can quote me."
Sachs says she continues to believe strongly that the contacts were made at Venzer's request, and they led her to feel angry and threatened.
A few days after Ofgant told Sachs about his conversation with Cronig, an anonymously written message was faxed to the courthouse, addressed to Judge Venzer. According to attorney Scott Feder, the contents of the four-paragraph typed note prompted its immediate routing from the clerk's office to Venzer's chambers.
Feder relates that Venzer was shocked. She knew she might someday face the prospect of being blackmailed, but she certainly did not expect it almost one year to the day after she took the bench. It was a most unwelcome anniversary present.
"We are communicating as a group of concerned people who are outraged by your actions toward Lynne Sachs and AIDs research," the January 8, 1996, message began. "Most of us attended and paid $250.00 for the fundraiser at Robert Gray's and are aware of how you maliciously interfered with Ms. Sachs business relationships. and in turn AIDS research. When you hurt the fundraiser you hurt the cause."