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
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
The second paragraph began: "We are less concerned with your Lesbian activities than you think." There it was. The author had even capitalized the word lesbian for emphasis. Perhaps worse, the note went on to accuse Venzer of being friends with "a known drug dealer."
"Ms. Sachs has been working with AIDs related causes for over 10 years and now she is at a complete standstill. This is all due to your irresponsible and malicious actions toward her," the message continued. "If this becomes public you will find out who we all are. It is time for you to take responsibility for your actions that have hurt so many of us."
Several days later a second, nearly identical fax addressed to Venzer arrived at the courthouse. This one apparently floated around the clerk's office for several days, Feder says, before being sent to Venzer's chambers.
Venzer was faced with a wrenching decision. She viewed the faxes as an attempt to pressure her into settling Sachs's claim. If she refused, she risked having her private life exposed. The fact that Venzer was attracted to women (as well as men) was not a secret to her friends and family. In his sworn statement, William Ofgant claimed that during one of their first meetings, Venzer freely acknowledged she was a lesbian. Venzer, however, understood the difference between a select number of people knowing her sexual orientation and having that information disseminated in a manner designed to humiliate her.
But Venzer decided that wearing the robes of a judge meant she could not succumb to threats or blackmail. According to sources familiar with the investigation, she contacted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which forwarded the information to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office for review. Early in the investigation, Venzer was told by law enforcement officials that if they made an arrest in the case, the allegations contained in the faxes would almost certainly become public and that she might also be required to testify in court. Without hesitation Venzer agreed.
"She understood the potential problems," says Scott Feder, who in addition to being Venzer's attorney is also her stepbrother. "She made the decision that it was her responsibility to bring this matter involving potential extortion to the attention of authorities and let them deal with it as appropriate, regardless of whether that meant allegations regarding her private life became public.
"As for those allegations, her personal life is her life, and those allegations don't deserve any response because they are not relevant. It's sad that in 1997 our society would even have any interest or concern with what happens in the privacy of one's home, when all that should matter is how somebody performs on their job. I think Judge Venzer has proven she is an excellent judge on the bench."
For federal agents the list of suspects was relatively short, because the one person who clearly stood to profit from pressuring Venzer into a settlement was Lynne Sachs. That suspicion was strengthened in March 1996, two months after the faxed messages were received, when Venzer was handed a draft copy of the lawsuit Sachs said she was planning to file. The draft included language identifying the judge as a lesbian.
Venzer attorney John McClure called Sachs's principal attorney, Abe Koss, and demanded that he delete the lesbian reference. Koss agreed. Whether intended or not, Venzer was once again led to believe that she risked personal embarrassment if a lawsuit were filed.
In the summer of 1996, federal agents decided to exploit the ongoing settlement negotiations and set a trap for Sachs. The U.S. Attorney's Office instructed Venzer and McClure to increase their settlement offer from $20,000 to $35,000, but with one condition: Sachs would be required to identify the person who sent the faxes. As McClure spelled out the terms of the settlement offer for Sachs and her attorney Abe Koss, federal agents were secretly tape recording their discussions. Sachs rejected the offer.
In August 1996, nearly two years after the IRI fundraiser, the offer was increased to $40,000. This time, though, Sachs would have to admit that she sent the faxes. Sachs agreed. She now claims she consented only because she wanted to put the affair behind her and move on with her life. "I needed closure," she says.
But before an agreement could be signed, negotiations broke down over how Sachs's admission would be worded. At the direction of the U.S. Attorney's Office, McClure had proposed language that made it clear Sachs sent the faxes in an effort to extort a settlement larger that the initial offer of $20,000. The settlement, which would be signed by Sachs, read in part: "I sent the telefax anonymously because I was unhappy with the way my claim against the judge was going. I hoped, by including in the telefax false and scandalous allegations about the judge which I knew to be unrelated to my claim against her, 'to hurt the judge as she had hurt me' and to scare the judge into resolving my claim against her on terms favorable to me." Without realizing it, Sachs would be signing her own criminal confession.