Over the Edge and Under Investigation
On November 16, 1994, newly elected County Court Judge Ellen Venzer strolled into a $250-per-person AIDS fundraiser in Miami Beach without paying, scanned the crowd at the private home to see who was in attendance, and quickly recognized a recent acquaintance, William Ofgant, a retired IBM executive who maintains homes in Miami, New York, and Spain. Venzer approached Ofgant and the two began chatting. They had been introduced through a mutual friend several weeks earlier, and Ofgant was impressed by Venzer's command of issues and her desire to be a judge. At the fundraiser Ofgant congratulated Venzer on her recent victory. As the two talked, Ofgant noticed that Venzer was not paying attention to what he was saying but was instead scanning the crowd to see who else was present.
Venzer soon turned her attention to a woman standing across the room and asked Ofgant if he knew her. Of course he knew the woman, Ofgant offered; her name was Lynne Sachs. She was the fundraiser for an AIDS research group known as the Immunology and Retrovirology Research Institute (IRI), which was conducting studies into limiting the spread of HIV through a patient's immune system. In fact, Ofgant said, this was Sachs's event, with all the money going to IRI.
Venzer's attitude seemed to change instantly. She began telling Ofgant that one of her last cases as an attorney in private practice involved a lawsuit against Sachs. Venzer explained that Sachs had borrowed a large sum of money from her client, but rather than repay the debt she had filed for bankruptcy. "The way she said it," Ofgant would later state in an affidavit, "it made Lynne out to be a common thief."
In a subsequent sworn statement, Ofgant added, "I don't know whether my mouth actually dropped open, but I was just stupefied by anyone telling me this information. First of all, to me, lawyers and clients have privileged information they share with one another, and Ellen and I knew one another only casually and in a social sense. And I couldn't conceive that anybody would divulge this information. And it was so vitriolic in what she was saying. It almost seemed like she wanted to tell me that for some purpose other than casual conversation, because she was quite specific, and specific detail and -- I don't know the word to express it, but vitriol is the best word that comes to my mind to explain the feeling that I had about her demeanor."
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At the party Ofgant immediately confronted Sachs. "Up to that point in time, I thought I had done a very good detailed homework in getting to know and understand Lynne as a person, in a professional sense, and quite specifically with the organization she was dealing with," he recalled, "and I had nothing but the highest regard for her personally and professionally. And now, all of a sudden, I am given a set of details, pieces of information that were presented as a set of facts by a recently elected judge."
As Ofgant related his conversation with Venzer, Sachs's knees went weak. Six months earlier, in May 1994, Sachs had been sued by a woman who had once been her friend but over time, according to Sachs, had become romantically obsessed with her, even though Sachs is heterosexual. The woman, who was represented by Venzer, claimed she gave Sachs slightly more than $10,000 as a loan and that Sachs refused to repay it. Sachs argued that she had sold the woman $10,000 worth of jewelry and therefore didn't owe her a dime. Rather than fight the lawsuit, Sachs filed for bankruptcy a month later, rendering moot the legal proceedings against her.
By the time of the charity event, Sachs believed she had left the matter behind her. But suddenly here was Venzer, impugning her integrity to a potential donor -- at her own fundraiser. Sachs promised Ofgant she would give him her side of the story later, and then marched over to Venzer. "I told her I wanted to speak to her," Sachs recalled in a deposition taken earlier this year. "I took her aside and I said, 'You have walked into this party, this fundraiser for AIDS, you have not paid a penny, you were not invited, and you have walked up to one of my donors and you have slandered me.' And then she said, 'No I did not. I did not.' I remember so clearly. And I said, 'Oh, really?' And then I called Bill over. I just screamed his name: 'Bill come here!'
"Well, he started to come over and just at that point she saw what was happening and then she said, 'Okay, okay, I did say it.' And then I put my hand up to tell Bill to stay where he was." Sachs told Venzer she had spent months organizing this charity event. "And all I remember," Sachs added, "is that she kept smiling and she just went, 'I don't care about your job.' But the whole time she smiled, like she was above it all."
Later Sachs tried to explain to Ofgant why she had declared bankruptcy, but he remained suspicious of her and decided not to contribute to IRI. Sachs also claims that Venzer spent the rest of the fundraiser talking to Dr. Paula Sparti, a nationally recognized AIDS researcher based in Miami, who also served as the medical adviser for the IRI board of directors.
Sachs says she is certain Venzer repeated the tale to Sparti, because within days of the event Sparti openly criticized Sachs during a board meeting. (Sparti does recall Venzer saying something to her at the fundraiser about a lawsuit against Sachs but, she says, it was "nothing I really remember or recall.")
Two months later Sachs was fired from IRI. With its fundraising efforts in disarray, IRI closed its doors six months later.
Rather than sue IRI for wrongful discharge, Sachs filed a lawsuit against Judge Venzer, accusing her of slander and tortious interference with a business relationship. Venzer declined to be interviewed for this story, but one of her attorneys, Scott Feder, denied that the judge did anything wrong. "She did say something to the effect that Ms. Sachs didn't pay a debt and filed bankruptcy to avoid it," Feder said. "Everything Judge Venzer said is absolutely the truth."
Having run unopposed for a vacant seat, Ellen Sue Venzer was sworn in as a county court judge in January 1995. Her stepfather, Circuit Court Judge Richard Feder, who has served on the bench for nearly 30 years, administered the oath of office.
While the 34-year-old Venzer professionally prospered, Sachs found herself unemployed and broke. At IRI she earned $48,000 per year; today she works as a receptionist at a local bank for $8.25 per hour. As a result she has been forced to move out of her apartment and sell her car and her furniture. She now rents a room in a friend's house for $125 per month.
Sachs expected a more promising future when she moved to Florida from New York in 1992. Her interest in nonprofit groups led her to several organizations, from the local chapter of the American Red Cross to the New World Symphony. Then she settled into a high-profile position as executive director of SAVE (Safeguarding American Values for Everyone), a local group formed in 1992 to fight a proposed statewide referendum limiting the rights of homosexuals.
When supporters of the measure failed to collect enough signatures to place the referendum on the ballot, and her assistance was no longer needed at SAVE, Sachs accepted the job of development director for the Immunology and Retrovirology Research Institute. She believed this just might be her ideal job. So many of her friends, she says, had died of AIDS that she was eager to work on the project.
The November 1994 fundraiser was her first major event for the group, and as far as she was concerned, Venzer ruined everything -- including her life. So Sachs hired an attorney, who contacted Venzer and conveyed Sachs's belief that the judge was liable for damages. On December 19, 1995, Venzer's insurance company, through its Miami attorney John McClure, offered to settle the dispute with Sachs for $20,000. Sachs rejected the offer, believing it to be inadequate. In addition, she says, she sought the vindication that would come through a public trial.
In the weeks that followed, two of Sachs's witnesses told her they had been approached by friends of Venzer who allegedly wanted one of them to change his story and the other to actually testify against Sachs. County Judge Victoria Sigler called a mutual friend, Damian Pardo, to see if he would be willing to testify as a character witness against Sachs. Pardo, who had worked with Sachs at SAVE, says he refused and that Sigler then dropped the matter. (Sigler referred questions to her attorney, who would not comment.)
Sachs also claims that Venzer tried to influence her star witness, William Ofgant, who told Sachs he had been contacted by attorney Steven Cronig, the man who had introduced Ofgant to Venzer. Cronig acknowledges he talked to Ofgant after he learned Ofgant had signed an affidavit on behalf of Sachs: "I did speak with him and I said, 'What the hell are you doing? You are going to get us both in the Herald.'" But Cronig adamantly denies he contacted Ofgant at Venzer's behest or that he asked Ofgant to change his story. "Absolute bullshit," he insists, "and you can quote me."
Sachs says she continues to believe strongly that the contacts were made at Venzer's request, and they led her to feel angry and threatened.
A few days after Ofgant told Sachs about his conversation with Cronig, an anonymously written message was faxed to the courthouse, addressed to Judge Venzer. According to attorney Scott Feder, the contents of the four-paragraph typed note prompted its immediate routing from the clerk's office to Venzer's chambers.
Feder relates that Venzer was shocked. She knew she might someday face the prospect of being blackmailed, but she certainly did not expect it almost one year to the day after she took the bench. It was a most unwelcome anniversary present.
"We are communicating as a group of concerned people who are outraged by your actions toward Lynne Sachs and AIDs research," the January 8, 1996, message began. "Most of us attended and paid $250.00 for the fundraiser at Robert Gray's and are aware of how you maliciously interfered with Ms. Sachs business relationships. and in turn AIDS research. When you hurt the fundraiser you hurt the cause."
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.
In an August 23, 1996, letter to McClure, Abe Koss (still unaware that McClure was acting at the direction of the U.S. Attorney's Office) expressed his outrage at McClure's proposed agreement. "My client told you that she sent the faxes in question," Koss wrote. "She told you that she sent them at a time when she felt seriously injured by the actions of your client. She did not send them with the intention of making your client settle this claim, and certainly not to extort or do any criminal act whatsoever. She sent them while in a depressed and irrational state of mind, only to lash out at your client for what your client has done."
Koss also objected to language in the proposed settlement that would have implicated him in the alleged conspiracy. McClure wanted Sachs to admit that she told Koss in January she had sent the faxes. Sachs, however, denied to McClure that she had told Koss. At the end of his letter, Koss demanded that McClure rewrite the agreement and that they meet again in a few days.
Before that meeting could take place, however, both Sachs and Koss received letters from Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Butler: "This is to advise you that you are a target of a federal investigation being conducted in this district into possible violations of federal criminal law, including possible extortion of a Judge of the Dade County Court."
Neither Sachs nor Koss has been charged with a crime, and both maintain they have done nothing wrong. Furthermore, Sachs now denies she sent the faxes and asserts that they were actually sent by a friend of hers, Peter Sosa, who has since died of AIDS. In November 1996, Sachs filed her lawsuit against Venzer (minus any reference to sexual orientation), and in a recent deposition explained why she allegedly lied about sending the faxes:
"McClure: So it's your testimony today under oath that Mr. Sosa sent this fax, not you.
Sachs: That's correct.
McClure: Why did you once tell me that you sent it?
Sachs: Because you were beating the shit out of me to say I sent it. And to -- and to end this case so I could just have some closure in my life to all this. It was the only way I was going to satisfy you."
Sachs went on to claim she never asked Sosa to send the faxes and she only learned after the fact what he had done.
"McClure: How did you determine it was him?
Sachs: He told me. I used to meet Peter in church on Sunday. He used to go by himself on Sunday. I didn't know he was dying at the time. And I told him what happened with the faxes.
McClure: So on Sunday -- on some Sunday, reasonably shortly after this first fax was sent, you just happened to run into Mr. Sosa at church and told him this story and he said, 'Isn't that something? I sent it'?
Sachs: No. He said, 'How are things going with your lawsuit?' I said, 'We just got information that somebody was sending faxes, or a fax, to Venzer's office,' and I said, 'I'm just trying to find out who did it.' And he looked at me and he just started laughing. He was not completely rational at this time. He was dying.
McClure: Was anybody else present during that little exchange?
Lynne Sachs believes she is under federal criminal investigation because Venzer and her stepfather used their political connections to initiate the probe in hopes of forcing Sachs to drop her claim. (Sachs offers no evidence to support this charge, and Scott Feder calls the allegation ridiculous.) Even though she says she didn't send them, Sachs considers the faxes to be harmless, and she dismissively brushes aside the notion that Venzer might have been hurt or embarrassed by them. "She's making it seem like it was this big secret," Sachs says smugly. "I never met anybody who didn't know she was gay."
She has expressed the same cavalier attitude toward her former attorney, Abe Koss. Seven months ago Koss sent a letter to Mary Butler, the federal prosecutor overseeing the criminal investigation, pleading with her to clear him. In the six-page letter, he outlined the history of the dispute between Sachs and Venzer. "My obligation as an attorney is to defend my client's interest zealously," he wrote. "That is exactly what I did throughout this case. At no time did I remotely consider doing anything wrong or unethical, and much less criminal in order to assist or allow my client to extort the Judge into doing anything."
Koss sent Sachs a copy of the letter for her review, but says he never intended for her to make it public. In fact, he specifically asked her not to distribute it because it revealed he was the target of a federal criminal investigation. Nonetheless Sachs did send out copies of the letter; she even attached it to a pleading in her court file, thus making it a public record for anyone to see. (In September Venzer's attorneys successfully obtained a court order striking Koss's letter from the court file.)
Koss says he is mortified by Sachs's callously publicizing his private correspondence with the U.S. Attorney's Office. "Lynne and I had a big fight over that letter," he reports, noting that it prompted him to quit as her attorney. "I still believe in her. I believe to this day that she did not send the faxes. I still like her greatly as a person. Lynne unfortunately is unable to see that." When she becomes desperate, he observes, she attacks even those who are trying to help her.
Sachs is unrepentant for any harm she's caused Koss, and says she should have dropped him as her attorney long ago. "My feeling is I've got to take care of me," she declares. "I can't care about Abe any more. He didn't help me. He hurt me."
Sachs has gone through several attorneys, including Brian Pelzman, who believed she had a strong claim against Venzer -- if only she would keep to the relevant facts. In a July 11, 1996, letter to Sachs, Pelzman agreed to represent her but also offered some advice. "On somewhat of a more personal note," Pelzman wrote, "I want you to understand that although I believe in your case, I often hear vengeance emanating from you during our conversations. I want to caution you not to be vengeful for the wrong committed against you, but to take the attitude that you merely want to be compensated for the damages you have sustained as a result of Judge Venzer's improper conduct. Unfortunately, incidents such as this one happen from time to time, and although the results are unpleasant, it is important that you not act vindictive, as it would reflect adversely upon your character if and when this matter goes before a jury." Less than three weeks later Pelzman withdrew as Sachs's attorney, citing among other reasons Sachs's preoccupation with "irrelevant issues."
Pelzman's letter may prove to be prophetic, especially regarding the issue of character. Venzer's attorneys have investigated Sachs's past and have uncovered facts they believe will destroy her credibility before a jury. For example, Sachs admitted in her deposition that she has lied about her educational background. Her resume claims a bachelor's degree in liberal arts and a master's degree in economics from George Washington University. She received neither. "I thought it would help me get a job," she now says. "If that's the worst thing I've done, thank you, God."
She also failed to file tax returns in 1992, 1994, 1995, and 1996. On the day of her deposition with Venzer's attorneys, she finally mailed in all of them. During the deposition, she refused to answer certain questions about why she hadn't filed the returns sooner, citing her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. "Something kept coming up," she says today. "I'm not trying to cheat anybody. I owe $27,000 to the government and I now have an agreement with the government to pay this over time. Somehow I'm going to pay my taxes."
Sachs has stated that she filed for bankruptcy in 1994 in order to sidestep the lawsuit claiming she owed a former friend $10,000. (The friend's canceled checks, however, bear the notation "loan" on the memo lines.) Sachs's bankruptcy allowed her to avoid other debts as well. Her bankruptcy petition lists nearly $3000 in credit card bills she wanted absolved, $2600 in dental bills, and personal loans from friends totaling $16,200. Sachs says she contacted each of the people to whom she owed money, explained her circumstances, and promised to pay them back.
Venzer's attorneys say Sachs frequently threatens to sue people. "Ms. Sachs feels that any time someone disagrees with her, she is going to threaten to sue them," Scott Feder charges. In addition to her lawsuit against Venzer, Sachs is suing InterAmerica Car Rental, where she worked as a receptionist. She is claiming sexual harassment.
Feder says she also threatened to sue the Immunology and Retrovirology Research Institute and the local chapter of the American Red Cross. In her threats against the Red Cross, Sachs complained that she had been slandered and her reputation damaged by the organization. David Roger, chairman of the board of directors for the Greater Miami and the Keys Chapter of the American Red Cross, does recall Sachs making threats against the organization, but he says the matter was resolved. He would not elaborate.
For her part, Sachs denies ever threatening the Red Cross. "They will take everything in my life and try and twist it," she complains. "I'm a good person and I have to keep reminding myself of this every time I deal with these people. I'm not the person they are making me out to be."
Sachs, who will be 49 years old in November, is now representing herself in her lawsuit against Judge Venzer. The case, which is still in the discovery phase, has been assigned to a Broward County judge. The U.S. Attorney's Office will not comment on the existence of a criminal investigation. This past December prosecutors asked Sachs if she would voluntarily appear before a federal grand jury -- under oath and without immunity -- to answer questions regarding the faxes sent to Venzer. She refused.
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