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
At 7:00 p.m. on April 10, a crowd of well-heeled residents gathered in the Key Biscayne Village Hall. Impeccably tanned women and men in pressed chinos nibbled on crudités staffers laid out, while sipping complimentary sodas. The atmosphere was more cocktail hour than monthly village council meeting. The pressing issue that night: whether to light the village green at night for flag-football games.
This, after all, is the summer home of presidents. The site of international tennis tournaments. A caviar Mayberry.
Which is precisely why Michael Flaherty took the post of police chief here nearly a decade ago. Key Biscayne couldn't be further from the racially divided Maryland county where he previously served as chief. There Flaherty worried about drive-by shootings and federal investigations into police brutality. Here the cops try to discourage speeding.
But Flaherty currently is dealing with one rather unpleasant matter as chief: He's fending off a lawsuit filed by a police officer he fired last year. And Jackie Rojas, the cop in question, is hoping to put some furrows in Flaherty's brow. She portrays the department as the kind of place where the chief orders his underlings to sue his enemies, fires them for disloyalty, and where the atmosphere is so lax officers sleep on the job. Flaherty denies these claims. He says the lawsuit hardly is a cause for anxiety: "No, this is not stressful. These are common problems you deal with in law enforcement." His broad, ruddy face crinkles into a smile. Four fishing rods leaning against the wall in his office speak to his other priorities.
Still it would be hard to deny that Flaherty is beginning to learn a familiar lesson: The life of a police chief in South Florida has an uncanny way of becoming tangled in controversy, even in a sedate enclave like Key Biscayne.
When she was ten years old, Jacqueline Rojas lived next door to a Miami motorcycle cop. She began dreaming of one day becoming a police officer. "I wanted to be a female police officer in Miami," the 38-year-old says. "That's what kept me going through school. I think what pushed it was that my brother was killed by a drunk driver when I was nineteen years old."
She joined the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP)in 1987 and stayed for ten contentious years. "I walked into an organization where the good-old-boy mentality was alive and well," she charges. "I clashed with some supervisors. I always spoke my mind. I never disobeyed an order, but I'd tell them if I disagreed with one." Some of her supervisors had a different take on her. Her personnel file contains at least seven internal affairs inquiries, two of which were sustained, both for minor offenses. Then there was the Kmart case.
In 1994 a Kmart employee arrested for stealing told police that Rojas and another trooper who worked off-duty security at the store also had stolen items. Rojas was accused of taking a children's bicycle. An internal-affairs inquiry cleared her when she produced a sales receipt for it. Afterward Rojas sued Kmart and won a settlement, which she says is confidential. Ultimately, she believes, it was clear she was not wanted at the FHP. In 1997 a friend told her the Key Biscayne Police Department was looking to hire women, so she sent an application.
Rojas wasn't hired right away. In her first interview with Chief Flaherty, he asked if there was anything he should know about her background. She says she gave him the Kmart file. Weeks later the chief called to say he wasn't going to hire her because of disciplinary information in her personnel file. She requested a meeting to respond to his concerns. "He called me in for a stress-voice analyzer, primarily because of Kmart," she asserts. "I passed that."
A week later Flaherty called to offer her a job. Before applying, she says, she hadn't even known the island had its own police force.
Until a decade ago Key Biscayne was part of unincorporated Dade County, sort of its master-bedroom community. President Richard Nixon kept a home there. The island has long been a popular safe haven for Latin America's aristocracy. The international Lipton Tennis Tournament (now called the Ericsson Open) is held there. But residents, most of them wealthy, thought they would be better off on their own. A secession movement started, and the county eventually allowed Key Biscayne to incorporate as its own municipality in 1991. As intended, real estate taxes have declined steadily since.
One of the first orders of business for the new village -- after it decided not to contract with the county for law enforcement -- was to create a police department. To do that they needed a chief. The village manager conducted a nationwide search -- they wanted the best and were willing to pay for top talent. "This is a high-end community, and we demand good services," says village Manager Sam Kissinger.
Michael Flaherty was looking for a job. In 1989 he had resigned from the Prince George County Police Department, just outside Washington, D.C. During his 24 years on that force, the last 6 as chief, Flaherty had seen the worst that inner-city America could throw at a cop. In the Eighties the murder rate exploded owing to the crack-cocaine epidemic. Friends of his were killed in the line of duty. Colleagues were arrested and investigated for brutality, even for killing suspects, always black. In a volatile place, Flaherty earned a reputation as a troubleshooter.
But Flaherty also clashed with the union and local black leaders. After six years of swelling crime rates and public turmoil, he resigned. "It was simply a matter that the blacks were coming to power," Flaherty observes, "which they deserved as a majority of that county. They wanted a black police chief. The head of the NAACPtold me many times: “We want a black police chief.' So it wasn't about Mike Flaherty."
Two years after his resignation he saw an ad for the Key Biscayne position in a police trade journal. Flaherty, who lived in Miami as a young man after a stint in the military, had always hoped to retire to South Florida.
Key Biscayne officials made it easy by giving him a boatload of money. "I hired him out of about 100 people," Kissinger recalls. "He was clearly the best." This was not a case of a stressed-out chief taking a pay cut to hide in a small town. He was hired at $60,000 per year, with a stipulation that he had to live on the key. To help ease that transition he received a $12,000 housing bonus. By 1998 he was earning $100,509 and still was able to convince village officials that he was owed a whopping $84,600 incentive bonus. Flaherty received another $5000 cost-of-living adjustment as well. This year Flaherty will earn $117,000, slightly less than Miami Beach police Chief Richard Barreto ($127,000) and Miami police Chief Raul Martinez ($118,000). Miami has 1000 officers, and Miami Beach has more than 300. Key Biscayne has 30.
To Samuel Kissinger Flaherty is worth every penny. "He's one of the top chiefs in the country," the village manager says. "The department's been surveyed and resurveyed, and the public always gives us glowing marks. I think that's because of him."
Jackie Rojas plunks a box of folders down on the kitchen table of her South Miami-Dade home. The walls are adorned with pictures of Miami Dolphins players (her husband, a City of Miami cop, is a huge fan). Rojas describes her job on Key Biscayne almost wistfully. "The residents liked me; I gave out my home phone number," she recounts. "One woman would call to ask me to stop her kids from jumping off the roof onto a trampoline. It's not the City of Miami. It's not complicated. There was some domestic violence. But that was not the norm. For the most part it was traffic tickets and noise complaints. The residents of Key Biscayne liked having police around."
Her tenure as a Key Biscayne cop was unremarkable, and she was never disciplined while working there. "I never had a problem until Larry Curtin," she says.
Curtin, the brother of actress Jane Curtin, is a well-known figure on the key. He's worked as a magazine and script writer, and has patented a solar-cell design. By all accounts he's very bright. He's also been described by police as "agitated" and "hostile" toward them, terms he vehemently denies. "I'm argumentative," he clarifies.
Curtin has a penchant for filing lawsuits against authority figures. According to a department memo, his own son told police his father likes to file lawsuits "against people he's angry with." Curtin maintains any lawsuits he has filed are only intended to redress wrongs and government inaction.
Rojas made Curtin's acquaintance around midnight on September 6, 1998. She was in her patrol car when she says she saw a black truck roll through three stop signs. She says she pulled the vehicle over and Curtin stepped out of the car and began yelling. Rojas called for backup. Ofcr. Brett Capone responded. In a memo to the chief, Capone described the scene as he approached: "I observed what appeared to be the driver of the vehicle ... in the middle of the street yelling at Ofc. Rojas. I identified the subject as Mr. Larry Curtain [sic], a resident of Key Biscayne. I knew this to be Mr. Curtain because he is an acquaintance of mine." Despite his efforts to calm him, Capone says Curtin grew increasingly hostile, calling Rojas a liar and demanding to fill out a complaint. Curtin claims he merely argued with the officers to prove his point. "I'll admit to being loud," he concedes, but asserts Capone threw him against a car. "He assaulted me. Who's volatile?"
In the end Rojas cited Curtin for running one stop sign. The next day Curtin sent a letter to the chief insisting he did indeed stop at the sign and calling for Rojas to be fired. A few days later he sent another letter. And another. And then another. He appeared at village council meetings denouncing Rojas and Capone. He filed a public-records request to view their personnel files and researched Rojas's file at the FHP. He also accused Rojas of falsifying documents while she was a trooper.
On December 9, 1998, Flaherty sent a memo to all police personnel warning that Curtin was "infuriated" after losing his appeal of the ticket Rojas had given him: "Recently I had a conversation with Mr. Curtin during which he made veiled threats toward police officers." Curtin allegedly told Flaherty he had been arrested in Boston for assaulting a police officer in 1977 (Curtin says he was defending someone). "It has also been noted that Mr. Curtin has followed several of our officers around while officers were on patrol," the chief wrote. He warned all officers to use caution handling any call involving Curtin and to have a backup present.
Flaherty also ordered Lt. José Monteagudo to conduct a "threat-assessment report" on Curtin. The report, which filled two large binders, included lawsuits Curtin had filed, police reports from around the nation, and a mental-health report conducted during Curtin's attempt to win custody of his children.
At that point Curtin changed his tactics. "Suddenly his campaign veered away from me and Brett [Capone], and he went after the chief," Rojas notes. Curtin wrote letters to the mayor and village council, the State Attorney's Office, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, claiming that the chief was having officers trail him, that Flaherty was hiring officers with criminal pasts, and that the chief himself had a questionable background, a reference to his resignation from the Prince George County Police Department.
"One day after all this started," Rojas says, "the chief calls me into his office, and he says, “Kid' -- that's what he called me -- “Kid, come here. I want to talk to you.' He tells me he's been advising Larry Curtin he has to stop. Then he says, “It's time to sue Larry Curtin.' I said you can sue too, but he said he couldn't; as an appointed official he wasn't allowed to. He said he talked to Mortimer Fried, a councilperson and an attorney, and concluded I could sue. He told me to call my attorney. “Call and set up an appointment. I'm going with you.'"
The chief, Rojas says, thought this would shut Curtin up.
Flaherty flatly denies ordering Rojas to sue Curtin: "Ms. Rojas had an attorney; she was looking to sue Larry Curtin anyway. She came to us and said, “Can I have the files on Larry Curtin?' She already had an attorney. She simply came to us and asked for assistance." Flaherty won't get into the specifics of her allegation, citing the pending litigation with Rojas.
When New Times contacted Mortimer Fried to verify that the chief called him to inquire about suing Curtin, Fried declined comment. "I have to get back to the chief," Fried said. "I'll have to call you back." A few days later Fried called back and said the chief never made such a request.
Although Rojas's illegal-termination lawsuit is against the Village of Key Biscayne, the council has treated the case as an internal police affair. "I'm not familiar with that matter," Councilman Robert Oldakowski says, adding, "I think the chief does an extraordinary job. The turnover is low. I mean, we know these people; we live with these people."
But John Agnetti, Rojas's attorney, claims Chief Flaherty played a more active role than he admits in encouraging his underling to sue Curtin. In early April of 1999 -- Agnetti can't recall the exact date -- he met with Rojas, Flaherty, and Lieutenant Monteagudo. "[Flaherty] came to my office with another gentleman. He was having a lot of problems with Curtin, and he wanted Jackie to preemptively sue him. Mr. Curtin was slandering Ms. Rojas. It wasn't a frivolous lawsuit."
Agnetti continues, choosing his words with lawyerly care: "I can tell you, the impression I got was that in order to be a team player, quote-unquote, this is something she needed to do because he asked her. There was a lot of pressure. No one ever said, We'll reimburse you for your legal fees. And she took money out of her retirement account to pay my retainer. It was more like, Be a team player: You take care of us and we'll take care of you." (Key Biscayne police officers do not belong to a labor union, which commonly provides attorneys in such situations.)
As he recounts the meeting, Agnetti asks an assistant to produce the threat-assessment report on Curtin. "These two binders were given to me by the chief," he says. "He said if I needed anything else, to talk to this gentleman [Monteagudo]. They didn't want this case to get expensive for her."
Rojas concurs: "The chief said, “Whatever you need to keep her costs down; we'll utilize the department.'" Agnetti never called for assistance.
In other words, according to both Rojas and Agnetti, not only did Flaherty order his officer to sue a civilian, he then put his department's investigative services at Agnetti's disposal -- for use in a civil case. Flaherty denies doing anything other than offering the Curtin files to Rojas at her request, and those were public documents.
A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in Tallahassee says its legal department will not speculate on what laws or code of conduct Flaherty's alleged actions would violate. Milton Hirsch, a Miami criminal lawyer who has handled public-corruption cases, says he can't speak to the veracity of Rojas's claims, but he does note, more broadly, that "a police chief would have no authority to devote public resources to the pursuit of a civil lawsuit. That's no different from theft or fraud of public money."
Rojas says she thought the chief was giving her a choice: File suit against Curtin or be out of a job. "I didn't have a choice," Rojas asserts. "I knew I had to do it."
Rojas v. Curtin was filed in April 1999. "He actually backed off once he got served," Rojas says. "He stopped going to meetings. The letters pretty much stopped. Occasionally I would see the chief, and he would ask how the lawsuit was going, and I'd tell him the lawyer is handling it; I don't want to know anything."
She continues, "[Flaherty] told me at one point in time something to the effect of: “It would be nice to take his house from him. It's worth a lot.' And I told the chief I don't want his house. I just want him to leave me alone."
Curtin, meanwhile, countersued not only Rojas but also Chief Flaherty and the Village of Key Biscayne, alleging racketeering. Since then he says he's received numerous threatening e-mails, including two sent in January that read, "Kill yourself, loser" and "Bang," plus others that make references to the lawsuit.
In December 1999, a lawsuit filed against Rojas and the FHP by a woman arrested for driving under the influence in 1995 came to trial. The woman claimed Rojas improperly administered the roadside drug test, and she sued for false arrest. A jury found the troopers liable. Rojas was devastated. "I thought my career in law enforcement was over," she says.
Curtin found out about the lawsuit and made sure the press did too. In an article that appeared in the Islander News, the attorney who sued Rojas cited an FHP internal-affairs complaint that revealed she had once accepted an award for making 100 DUI arrests when she hadn't made that many. (Rojas denies this claim.) Flaherty defended his officer in the article. "This was something done supposedly ten years ago, and the Florida Highway Patrol took no action," Flaherty is quoted as saying. "When I talked to her commanding officers and the seven officers who recommended her for hiring, they said this was a bunch of junk."
But it was all too much for Rojas. She told the chief she was going to drop the lawsuit against Curtin. By this time a circuit court judge had removed Flaherty and the village as defendants in Curtin's countersuit. Agnetti speculates that because the chief no longer had to worry about keeping a united front with Rojas against Curtin, the department was free to fire her. To have done so earlier could have been seen as a concession that she was a troubled officer. "Once the Key [Biscayne Police Department] obtained a dismissal in the Curtin case, they abandoned Jackie," Agnetti says. "I think they used her."
Immediately, Rojas claims, she began receiving bad shift assignments. Eventually Key Biscayne Deputy Police Chief Cathy McElhaney called Rojas in for a meeting. According to a memo Rojas wrote to the chief recounting the meeting, McElhaney wanted Rojas to resign, saying the department believed the officer had lied on her job application. Otherwise, McElhaney reportedly threatened, the department would launch an internal-affairs investigation and fire her. Rojas refused to resign.
McElhaney did conduct an internal-affairs investigation and promptly fired Rojas. But if there were a motive beyond the one given to fire her, even she's not sure what it is. "Maybe they do believe I lied," Rojas says. Or maybe the chief is upset with her for dropping the Curtin lawsuit.
On the Key Biscayne Police Department's application form, under the section titled "Arrest, Detention, and Litigation," this question is asked: "Have you ever been the subject of a police investigation? If yes, give details including police department and date." Believing the question referred to criminal investigations, not internal-affairs investigations, Rojas answered no.
This is what the department cited when they fired her: "Officer Rojas misrepresented, omitted, or falsified her employment application, and during subsequent interviews with the Chief of Police, failed to inform him of her prior work history." McElhaney noted that Rojas never mentioned her internal-affairs history with the FHP. She was fired December 18, 2000. Rojas then hired attorney Teri Guttman Valdes and sued for illegal termination. After some digging Valdes found that several other officers had made the same mistake on their applications. Two officers actually had been criminally charged in the past, one for impersonating a police officer, another for driving while intoxicated. (Both charges eventually were dismissed.) Other officers with sustained internal-affairs complaints from previous jobs answered "no."
"It's a bad question," attorney Valdes says. "All the other officers who had prior law-enforcement experience and prior internal-affairs investigations omitted them from the application. They were right not to answer “yes.'"
McElhaney also accused Rojas of not telling the department about the DUI award fiasco. Rojas says she not only told the chief, she pointed out his comments in the Islander News defending her in that matter. Flaherty claimed he was misquoted.
As part of her probe, McElhaney received a tip that Rojas slept on duty. Surprisingly Rojas, who worked the midnight to 7:00 a.m. shift in 1999 and 2000, didn't deny it. "I told them it was true but that we had permission from the lieutenant," she asserts. "He said, “I don't mind if you lay down.' He said he'd rather have us come to the station and lay down than get into an accident because we were tired."
She adds, "I won't deny it. I'd lay down in my patrol car, or in a chair in the women's bathroom. We were told we could do it. The only one who stayed awake the entire shift was the dispatcher."
As part of her research for the lawsuit, attorney Valdes made a public-records request for a taped conversation that took place on October 28, 2000, between Lt. Neil Rubin (Rojas's supervisor at the time) and dispatcher Arlene Sorensen. An excerpt from that conversation:
"Key Biscayne Police Department, Sorensen.
"Hi, Arlene, it's me.
"Can you do me a favor? I need a memo, from me to Cathy. Just put down “subject information.'
"And do me a favor, write it, stick it in my box. Don't show it to anybody.
Rubin goes on to dictate the memo: "Between April of 1999 and April 2000 I was the midnight-shift lieutenant. At no time -- do you remember me bringing in a group meeting and telling everybody they could legally sleep?"
After no response from Sorensen, Rubin continues: "Did I ever tell you you could bring in a sleeping bag and go to sleep?
"Heh. It's unbelievable. I'm so upset over this I can't tell you. You know what she said, Jackie? She said I gave permission they could sleep.... Basically all I'm asking you is did I tell you you could sleep? No, you didn't sleep anyway, heh, heh, heh. You're the only one who stays awake.
"Yeah." (Deputy Chief Cathy McElhaney says Rubin cannot comment on Rojas's assertion because the matter currently is the subject of an internal-affairs investigation.)
Rojas is now cordial, if not friendly, with her former nemesis Curtin. They share a common enemy in the chief. And Rojas, confident that the evidence she has gathered exonerates her, is still keen on law-enforcement work. "My intent is to walk back into Key Biscayne in full uniform," she declares.
But in Key Biscayne it's business as usual. At the last village meeting, for instance, Councilwoman Martha Broucek wanted to bring up complaints about how the police are treating minors arrested for vandalism and graffiti. Councilman Scott Bass interjected quickly, accusing his colleague of "badgering" the chief. Flaherty sat impassively, watching from the audience. No mention was made of Rojas's suit, her claims about the chief, or his allegedly well-rested officers.
After all, on Key Biscayne they like to accentuate the positive. As Councilman Robert Oldakowski pointed out after the meeting: "We've got a lot of good stuff going on out here. If you want to write about that, I'd be happy to spend a lot of time with you."