Dr. Stanley Feinman is chuckling into the phone. "Sure, come on over," he says. "Make sure your laugh meter is on. I mean, I know this is serious stuff, but thank God I've got a distorted sense of humor."
It is just that kind of unrepentant attitude that has put Feinman on the outs with police in his town. This is Golden Beach, after all; a little respect should be shown.
Feinman, a 68-year-old retired dentist and Golden Beach Town Council member, is fresh out of jail after a dispute over public records resulted in a felony battery complaint against him. The "battery" he's accused of is using his shoulder to shove past a worker on his way out of town hall. That's felony, as in more than a year in prison.
A State Attorney's Office spokesman said there was no indication the police consulted prosecutors before the arrest.
It's clear the Golden Beach Police Department wants to maintain its image as a no-nonsense place when it comes to law enforcement. That's why Feinman, sick in bed December 18, 2002, was hauled to the Miami-Dade County Jail in his bathrobe at 4:30 p.m. and not released until approximately 2:00 a.m. on the battery charge, as well as another disorderly conduct misdemeanor charge. Clearly the cops were trying to send a strong message to other would-be troublemakers that no matter who you are, the Golden Beach Police will deal with you swiftly and severely, in or out of pajamas.
Feinman's arrest, coincidentally, came a week after he was quoted in a New Times cover story ("Officer Trouble," December 12), criticizing the police department for hiring an officer, Michelle Santinello, who had been fired by another police department for lying on her application; Santinello was described by her own mother in a letter to the town as being mentally unstable (though the mother and daughter had an acrimonious history). And, also coincidentally, Feinman's arrest came at the hands of three officers, one of whom, he says, happened to be Leo Santinello, Michelle's husband. But even before all of that, Feinman had been a vocal and ardent critic of the town manager, James Vardalis, as well as the police department, for not disclosing information he believed should be public. A complaint he has previously shared with prosecutors.
"His arrest is not the result of criticism of the Town's police department or of the Town Manager. His allegations that the Town has resisted releasing public records has been reviewed by the State Attorney's Office," Golden Beach Mayor Michael Addicott wrote in a statement. "Councilman Feinman is certainly entitled to public records and to his opinions; however, no one is entitled to disrupt Town employees from performing their duties."
The incident in question occurred December 3, 2002. Feinman went to town hall to look at the file of the town's former finance manager, Paul Wayland, who, Feinman says, "mysteriously" stopped working for Golden Beach. Feinman was looking for a resignation letter.
Both sides agree that Nina Birnbach, the current finance manager, handed him the file. Both sides agree that he requested a copy of a letter in that file by town manager Vardalis admonishing Wayland. Both sides agree that he received two copies of that letter. And both sides agree that Cathy Szabo, the town clerk, then asked for the copies back. Then the stories diverge.
Szabo told police that she "was asking for the copies back in order to calculate the duplication cost. Councilman Feinman stated 'I'm leaving ...' and left the building. Ms. Szabo advised that on the way out Feinman struck and hit Nina Birnbach with his shoulder. Nina was visibly upset."
Birnbach, meanwhile, told police that she believed Szabo asked for the copies because Feinman had the originals instead, and that, anyway, the copies were confidential medical and insurance records that he shouldn't have been given. And when he was confronted, Feinman, "visibly shaking," shouted, "I'm going to call the State Attorney's Office." Feinman "then accused Mrs. Birnbach of blocking his path. Mrs. Birnbach stated that she was never blocking his path, simply standing there and Mr. Feinman struck her."
Feinman's account differs still more. "Mrs. Birnbach and I sat in the council room and Mrs. Birnbach handed me his file. I was going through his file when Cathy Szabo looked in and screamed, 'You can't have his file.' Mrs. Birnbach reached over the table and grabbed the file. We had a tug of war. I said, 'Mrs. Birnbach, you gave me the file, it's public record. If you don't take your hands off I'm going to call the State Attorney's Office.'" Eventually, he says, he gave the file back, and they made a copy of the letter. He never even brushed past Birnbach, he says.
Both sides also agree that as Feinman got up to leave, Szabo yelled after him, "Call the police! He's leaving with payroll records!" Linda Epperson, a building manager, was outside when she saw Feinman getting into his car. She told police he "was shaking and foaming at the mouth. ... He looked like he was on the edge. Councilman Feinman got in his car and said 'Move.' ... Ms. Szabo stood behind councilman Feinman vehicle [sic]. Mrs. Epperson was in fear of Councilman Feinman physically assaulting or running over her with his vehicle."
Although the report doesn't say so, we can infer that the two women had positioned themselves behind Feinman's Jeep. The report also doesn't mention whether their fear prompted them to move as Feinman requested.
Feinman's version: "Szabo and Epperson are behind my Jeep. I lean out of my car and say 'I want to leave.' They say, 'No. Not until you give back the files.' I say no. They don't move. So I get out of the car and go to the police department to file a complaint."
There was nobody in the office. On his way back to his car Feinman saw the police secretary and told her to send an officer to his house so he could file a report. Then he went home (presumably the women had been given enough time to get out from behind the car and flee to safety), stopping first at the guardhouse on the way to ask police Ofcr. John Retureta to come to his house.
Officer Retureta had already gotten a call about a disturbance at town hall, so he went there first and took the various women's statements. Clearly a retired dentist "on the edge" is a situation not to be taken lightly. Especially one who, like Feinman, has a small ponytail. Then Retureta rushed over to Feinman's home. "Upon the entrance of his home ... I smelled a distinct order [sic] of cannibis [sic]. I asked councilman Feinman what the odor was and he did not respond. Instead he was yelling at me as if he was under the influence of some drug or narcotic. I explained that for me to continue my conversation with him he would have to talk to me as a professional."
Retureta never mentions anything more about the cannabis, even after entering the house.
"For God's sake, it was incense!" Feinman snorts, scoffing at the idea that he'd demand an officer come to his house and then light up a joint right before the cop got there. And the discourteous part goes both ways, he counters. "He kept asking me questions and he wouldn't let me finish my answers. He was very rude."
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And there the situation lay for fifteen days, until police showed up to arrest Feinman and take him downtown. He says he had a cold and was sick in bed. "I asked if I could change out of my bathrobe, and they said no." He was handcuffed and taken to the Pretrial Detention Center, where he was put in a cell until he was finally released at around 2:00 a.m.
"I feel sorry for the town, and I'm disappointed with my fellow council people for letting it get this far," Feinman ruminates.
Now, he says, he's trying to figure out if Golden Beach's insurance will pay to defend him against the Town's charges, given that he was on official business when the incident took place.
And, of course, this makes him laugh.