Killer Mold in Miami Court

The fungus nailed Judge Ted Klein and endangers others. Federal incompetence is to blame.

Once an active skier and runner, U.S. Magistrate Theodore Klein could hardly breathe. His face was swollen from steroids. And he had to wheel around a portable oxygen canister.

He knew his killer long before he perished in September 2006.

"Ted strongly believed it was the mold in the courthouse that was killing him," says Ed Shohat, Klein's old friend and law partner. "Well, look at it. He's a healthy guy; [then] he goes to work in that moldy old courthouse and he dies."

Klein, who was 66 when he passed away, is just the most tragic casualty of federal incompetence in downtown Miami's courthouses. Not only has a lethal mold outbreak at the David W. Dyer courthouse endangered dozens of staffers and judges, but also it has sunk public access to records and sludged the wheels of justice in one of the nation's busiest districts. Worse, it might never have been this bad if the government hadn't fallen three years behind schedule and run $63 million over budget on a new courthouse.

Now a lawsuit over the mess could cost taxpayers millions more.

"I find it amazing that anyone would still work in that building," Shohat says. "I just don't get it."

The Dyer courthouse, at NE First Avenue and Third Street, has hosted as twisted and bizarre a cast of characters as any public building in America. From Miami's 1940s gang lords to Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to a never-ending parade of corrupt city officials, scores of notorious wrongdoers have walked under the courthouse's seahorse-shaped doorframes to face Lady Justice.

Marion Manley, one of the first female architects in Florida, collaborated with two others to design the Spanish Revival-style courthouse with a pitched red tile roof, a palm-shrouded courtyard, and grinning, mustached gargoyles. It became an icon soon after opening in 1934. "For people who lived in Miami at that time, this building was justice," says Paul George, a historian at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida.

In 1998, as shady international banking, drug smuggling, human trafficking, and organized crime ballooned the court's docket, Congress funded a new, $100 million federal courthouse at 400 N. Miami Ave. The avant-garde firm Arquitectonica was hired to create a new icon for downtown Miami. Designers dreamed up a cruise-ship-miming glass hulk, sailing boldly through tightly manicured waves of grass.

The government couldn't build it nearly as quickly as planned. Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma rocked the construction site. Electrical systems exploded. Contractors bickered. And the lead firm — the aptly named Pennsylvania-based Dick Corp. — walked off the job. Promises of a new courthouse by 2005 morphed into 2008. A $100 million budget bloated to $163 million.

As potential finish dates passed, a well-respected private defense lawyer named Theodore Klein got a long-awaited chance in 2003 to serve on the bench just down the street at the Dyer building. The son of a rabbi who had fled the Nazis in Czechoslovakia and landed in Miami, he had narrowly missed a Clinton appointment to the federal bench 10 years earlier. Congress never voted on his name.

"I always saw my father as someone who stood up for what was right," says Klein's daughter Jennifer, a Yale history professor. Klein once resigned from the Dade Heritage Trust because it met at Miami Beach's Bath Club, which once denied Jews the right to join.

What Klein didn't know as he set up shop in his second-floor chambers, according to his family, was that years of poor upkeep had given toxic fungus free reign to grow.

In the early Nineties, the family argues in an expanded lawsuit filed against 13 Miami contractors last week, contractors botched a gutter-installation job and rainwater poured in. In 1996, roofers put a defective new lid on the place. They added bad caulking and waterproofing three years later. Year after year, the family alleges, contractors let more and more rain soak in.

Two separate studies — one by the U.S. Public Health Service in January and another by a firm hired by Klein's children in April — found mold clinging to walls and multiplying under wallpaper around the old courthouse. On a scale of one to four, the Kleins' experts found several rooms harboring "four-plus" levels of penicillium/aspergillus, a fungus known to cause lung infections and skin rashes.

"There are areas in the courthouse where ... the experts said ... 'You either put on a mask right now or you leave,'" says Alan Goldfarb, the attorney representing Klein's children. "It's that bad."

Klein never knew the extent of the mold. He was skiing in Colorado in December 2005 when he came down with the shortness of breath that killed him less than a year later. But he saw the signs that something was amiss at the courthouse, Goldfarb says. Clerks left with nosebleeds, secretaries fell ill, and many staffers worked from home rather than deal with the sickly atmosphere.

After the mold problem came to light, the court sealed its basement, where thousands of case files sit in stacks. Later Klein's experts found a deadly fungus on "a number of wooden shelves" holding records and surrounded by discarded carpets and furniture, including one leather chair "covered in surface mold."

Now, once a week, an employee at the court's records department pulls on a full-body plastic suit and facemask and then scans files into a computer so that no humans have to come in contact with them. Requests, understandably, take longer than in the past to fulfill.

Lots of people still work in the building. On a recent day, only two floors up from the sealed basement, Magistrate Judge John J. O'Sullivan glared over square-rimmed glasses, recommending bail and appointing lawyers to dozens of olive-garbed prisoners. They were all just a few dozen feet from Klein's closed courtroom.

The federal General Services Administration, which owns the building, says it has closed all the areas in the courthouse where dangerous mold has been found and has begun "preliminary" cleanup efforts. The major cleanup "will begin once all the occupants are relocated," says Gary Mote, a spokesman in Atlanta. "We've been working with the health department to make sure the people still working there are not in danger."

A few blocks away at the new Wilkie D. Ferguson courthouse — the long-delayed glass boat of justice — court is finally in session and a steady stream of lawyers, jurors, and cops flows into the 14 stories of allegedly hurricane-proof glass.

But the government is suing Dick Corp. for millions over the delays in finishing the building. A series of passageways built for the U.S. Marshals to securely transport prisoners to the new courthouse only recently opened because an improperly installed fan was filling the tunnels with lead-contaminated air from a nearby firing range. And inside the building, some of the courtrooms still aren't ready for justice.

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