Assistant State Attorney Richard Scruggs usually nails bad guys. But a Miami-Dade judge last Friday chastised the veteran prosecutor for improperly handling the case against Rev. Gaston Smith, a popular Liberty City pastor.

Scruggs admitted he withheld key information from attorneys on both sides of the Smith case as well as from a New Times reporter. It was all part of an effort to convict Smith for allegedly stealing more than $10,000 in county grant money.

"Very unprofessional," Judge Beatrice Butchko scolded Scruggs on Friday. "Not only did you need to call them, you needed to draft a letter explaining exactly what happened... That didn't happen."

Scruggs cut his teeth in Miami's U.S. Attorney's Office, sending to prison some of the worst criminals in county history. He is prosecuting not only Smith but also suspended Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones.

Butchko's scolding came after Smith claimed the case should be dropped because the prosecutor failed to immediately reveal that a police officer had secretly taped two interviews with the pastor.

Butchko ruled the recordings could not be used, which was a blow to state prosecutors. She also admonished Scruggs for his dealings with Miami New Times staff writer Gus Garcia-Roberts. "I couldn't believe," the judge said, "you testified in court that you intentionally tried to get around complying with a lawful public records request because you don't like the practice. You can't do that."

Apparently, Scruggs had Smith's entire case file on a CD. He could have easily made a copy for Garcia-Roberts. Instead, the prosecutor had the reporter unnecessarily sift through boxes of documents.

Scruggs also denied telling New Times that Smith had rejected a plea deal in exchange for his testimony against Spence-Jones, who is accused of stealing $50,000 in county funds. And he said he had not told Garcia-Roberts that he had reported Smith to the IRS for possible tax evasion. "Absolutely not," Scruggs said under oath. "I don't recall talking about taxes at all."

Judge Butchko appeared skeptical. She asked, "So how would the reporter know that if he didn't get it from you? Is the reporter clairvoyant?"

Scruggs's reply: "I don't know." In the end, the assistant state attorney conceded he told Garcia-Roberts that Smith "was caught with his hand in the cookie jar." But Scruggs claimed it was off the record.

Asked why he didn't complain to New Times or demand a correction, Scruggs said, "No one reads this stuff anyway."

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