Much Ado About Very Little

It all started one balmy September evening, when four teenagers cruising back to Kendall from a night out in Coconut Grove got pulled over by a county police officer. The kids, two each in matching SUVs, were spotted by a cop swerving and looping around each other, goofing off, in his opinion. A routine Saturday-night stop for Ofcr. Steadman Stahl. As he was writing up several tickets (one for careless driving, four for curfew violations), the father of one of the teens pulled in behind him. His daughter had called on her cell phone. The man, David Efron, argued with Stahl over whether the kids deserved the tickets. Suddenly Stahl noticed a woman leaning against his passenger-side door. He got a jolt. The vivid green eyes. The dark hair. The delicate cheekbones -- he'd seen them before. It was Katherine Fernandez Rundle, the Miami-Dade State Attorney.

"It was the first time I'd met her," Stahl recalled of the September 9, 2001, encounter. "I was kind of shocked." Shocked because Rundle is a controversial figure to county cops, some of whom are often critical of a prosecutor's office they see as timid and ineffective. Stahl maintains that Rundle asked him whether the curfew rules for minors allowed for exceptions, such as a teenager driving between homes. Stahl confirmed with one of the teens that they had been out on the town, not at home. "[Rundle] kind of shrugged and said, 'He's doing his job, go back to your car,'" Stahl remembered. That was the end of it. Rundle and her dinner date, Efron, returned to their car, and escorted the teenagers to Efron's home.

Just to be safe, Stahl called his supervisor to let him know Rundle had appeared at the traffic stop. Three days later, Stahl got a call from Miami Herald columnist Joan Fleischman, who'd heard about the juicy incident through the law enforcement grapevine, and wanted details for her "Talk of Our Town" column. Fleischman's column appeared a few days later, with the headline: "State Attorney, Date Turn Up At Traffic Stop." The traffic incident was covered, mentioning that Efron's sixteen-year-old daughter Jennifer received a ticket for careless driving and one for violating the curfew. Fleischman threw in a few other choice tidbits from Efron's and Rundle's respective pasts, including his divorce, her separation, the alcohol-related car accident of one of Rundle's sons, and a couple of high-profile lawsuits Efron, an attorney, had filed in past years (including one against Burnie, the Miami Heat mascot). This was vintage Fleischman -- interesting but not terribly consequential gossip about local notables intersecting with law enforcement or the judicial system.

Then, an ironic twist. The gossip columnist herself became fodder for the rumor mill when an enraged Efron got attorney Guy Bailey, Jr., to file a lawsuit against the Miami Herald on behalf of his daughter, alleging that the newspaper inflicted "extreme and severe emotional distress" on Jennifer when it published Fleischman's column. Other allegations included libel and invasion of privacy. Fleischman's motive? Efron's argument from court filings: "To try to sensationalize Ms. Efron's father's relationship with the State's Attorney, as a means to aid the State's Attorney's political enemies (represented by the gossiper's [Fleischman's] husband)."

"The gossiper's husband" is Jim Casey, a partner in the law firm of Coral Gables mayor Don Slesnick. Casey represents the Dade Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the powerful union headed by John Rivera. The PBA has waged a long, bitter, and highly public campaign against Rundle for several years, backing former Broward prosecutor and radio commentator Alberto Milian's run against her in 2000. Efron seemed convinced the PBA would stop at nothing to embarrass Rundle, and that they'd just called in a favor with Fleischman. "Could it be because her husband represents the police union that's at war with the state attorney?" he asked rhetorically. "Could it be that the police union manipulates the Herald?"

"Preposterous," laughed the PBA's Rivera. "The Miami Herald has great disdain for the PBA and the PBA has equal disdain for the Herald." He scoffed: "We think the Herald, you know, borders on communist. For them to have come up with a grand conspiracy, somebody must have had something to drink." Rivera added that Casey and Fleischman are careful to keep their jobs separate to avoid any conflicts. "If someone tells Jim, 'Hey, tell your wife that was a great column,' he says, 'No, you call her and tell her.'" As to how Fleischman got the story? "Wasn't us," Rivera declared. "There are so many people who hate Ms. Rundle, it could have been any one of 10,000 officers."

Fleischman declined comment, but Sanford Bohrer, who handled the case for the Herald, called Efron's conspiracy theory "lunacy." "I've never seen a newspaper organization operate the way he seems to think they do. Joan's a professional. As far as I know, she likes Kathy Rundle." (Besides representing the Herald and many other media organizations, Bohrer has represented New Times in the past.)

Efron's suit asserted that the newspaper violated Jennifer's rights to privacy as a minor by printing her name in connection with the traffic citation. Bohrer, however, pointed out that the paper simply printed information that was part of a public record. The suit also claimed, oddly, that the article contained "false and defamatory" statements, because although Jennifer was ticketed, she was acquitted at her traffic hearing. But according to traffic court records, Jennifer was actually found guilty (adjudication was withheld because it was a first-time offense).

Officer Stahl says the hearing itself was strange because Efron represented his daughter, and brought along his own court stenographer, highly unusual in a mere traffic ticket case. "I think he was trying to turn the hearing into a deposition," Stahl offered. "He kept trying to tie the ticket into my affiliation with the PBA [Stahl is on the board of directors]." Efron appeared upset when he lost the case, Stahl said. "He let me know this wasn't the end of it." Said Efron: "How does a police officer just call in [to the station] and then he gets a call from the Herald? Then to justify it, he said the car was 'swerving.' It makes an innuendo, particularly when [Fleischman] brings in Kathy Rundle's son's arrest in the same column."

Filed in December 2001, the suit went through two judges before being dismissed January 22 by Judge Norman Gerstein. The original judge, Amy Dean, recused herself halfway through the case. Efron says it's because she was retiring from the bench, but Bohrer believes Dean's decision had something to do with an argument she had with Efron's attorney, Bailey, after she confiscated his ringing cell phone during a hearing. Efron laments Gerstein's decision to dismiss the case, and, perhaps not surprisingly, sees the long arm of the Herald at work. "I don't know if this is a new judge worried about upsetting the only newspaper in town," Efron fumed. "The judge was not acting in the fair manner you would hope for."

But Bohrer points out that Gerstein has been a popular judge in the Circuit Court for many years. "It's a frivolous lawsuit," he complained. "There's nothing to it, other than cooked-up, crazy allegations of a conspiracy."

And Rundle's reaction? Relief that the whole affair is over. From a statement faxed to New Times: "I don't like lawsuits generally, and this one is no exception."

Efron says he plans to appeal.

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Rebecca Wakefield

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