County Judge Candidate Once Sued in Federal Court Over Harassment Allegations

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Frank Bocanegra, an attorney and former Miami-Dade Police officer, is running for county court judge on the November 4 ballot based largely on his three-decade career in law enforcement and his role as a former city manager of Miami Lakes. "I... truly believe that hard work and unrelenting professionalism are the foundation to ensuring a fair and impartial judiciary," he tells voters.

But there's at least one person from Bocanegra's past who thinks the candidate shouldn't be anywhere near a courtroom.

"This guy does not know the meaning of justice," says Gus Abella, a Miami Lakes resident who spent years fighting Bocanegra in court over allegations he'd used his police powers to retaliate against him and his family.

In February 2007, when Bocanegra was a major on the county police department, Abella spoke at a Miami Lakes council meeting to argue against a mundane ordinance, proposed by Councilwoman Nancy Simon, concerning residents' posting of signs along suburban streets. In the back of his truck, Abella also had his own sign: "Councilmember Nancy Simon wants to pollute Miami Lakes with signs."

After leaving the meeting, Abella says, he was intimidated in the parking lot by police officers who didn't like what he'd said. And then, he says, he was systematically harassed over months: He says that police stopped him and threatened to issue a citation if he didn't remove the sign from the back of his truck, and that on several occasions other officers gave him bogus parking tickets and citations for ostensible violations like blocking handicapped parking spaces. Major Bocanegra, Abella alleges, used his officers to "make our life a living hell."

Abella went to federal court, claiming he had been intimidated as retaliation for expressing his First Amendment rights. He named numerous defendants, including Bocanegra, Simon, and several officers, and the legal wrangling went on for years. Finally, earlier this year, the case was settled for around $21,000, says Dennis Kerbel, who represented the county.

A spokesman from Bocanegra's campaign office referred comment about Abella's allegations to Kerbel, who says the claims of harassment were frivolous.

The county finally settled only to save taxpayer money that would have been spent on a trial, Kerbel claims. He says it wouldn't be fair to measure the prospective judge based on the harassment claims and eventual settlement.

"I don't believe his claims have any merit," Kerbel says of Abella.

But Abella says the incident should cast doubt on Bocanegra's credentials. "We were harassed by police," he says.

Update: It should also be noted that the Miami Herald endorsed Bocanegra and withdrew its recommendation of Bocanegra's opponent, the incumbent Miami-Dade County Judge Jacqueline Schwartz, after an incident that the newspaper said "raises sufficient questions about the judge's demeanor." The Herald reported that an owner of a Coconut Grove convenience store said that earlier this summer Schwartz demanded he remove an opponent's campaign sign, then cursed at the man after he refused and apparently later called code enforcement to have the sign taken down.

And in July, in response to a question about judicial underrepresentation at a meet-and-greet event broadcast on Island TV, Schwartz also made questionable comments about minorities in the judicial system. "If we're talking about black judges or people in the court system, I think there's been..studies that suggest that there's not a problem with underrepresentation," she said. "As far as black judges, I think the appointment process really helps a lot with that."

Schwartz's campaign did not respond to a request for comment by Riptide.

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