By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
By Lee Zimmerman
By Laurie Charles
By Falyn Freyman
By Hans Morgenstern
The recent arrest of a juvenile-court employee displays the scope of problems in Miami-Dade's system of selecting court-appointed lawyers. On December 9 the State Attorney's Office charged Thomas Grande, a 31-year-old judicial support specialist, with official misconduct. Authorities say he illegally assigned two cases to a lawyer.
One of the tasks assigned to Grande, who was paid $34,000 per year, was appointing private attorneys to work with indigent clients through a random system of selection commonly termed "the wheel." But agents with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement say there was nothing random about the April 27 and August 20, 1998, cases he assigned to lawyer Dennis Berger. "Neither case was assigned to Mr. Berger by the computerized blind file," the arrest affidavit states. Berger, who didn't return two phone calls from New Times seeking comment, received $500 for each case. He has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
"We categorically deny his guilt," says Grande's lawyer Gary Kollin. "He was following the instructions and procedures that were explained to him."
Prosecutor Michael Von Zamft declined to discuss the case, saying it is still under investigation.
Grande faces five years in prison if convicted.
Attorney Alberto Batista blames Cindy Lederman, the juvenile court administrative judge, for setting a bad example. Batista claims Lederman has blacklisted him, thus violating the system's randomness. Lederman is not implicated in the Grande case. "Judge Lederman violated the whole spirit of the wheel by making off-the-wheel assignments and blacklisting certain lawyers," Batista says. "That may have opened the door for Tom Grande to sell court appointments. Once he saw the system wasn't working, he may have figured he might be able to make some money."
Investigators have reviewed hundreds of cases, searched offices, and interviewed court employees and lawyers. "We're looking into everything and anything," Von Zamft says.
By Tristram Korten