Sunday, September 17, 2006

The suppression of free speech
in Florida's 6th Circuit

Atty. Leonard Englander & Judge Walt Logan
gag the opposition

by Wesley M. Fager (c) September 16, 2006

For two years Manny Gonzalez ran a web page that was critical of Kane's™ Furniture, a Florida corporation. His web page had become a source of information for the state's Attorney General's Office which was building a case against Kane's™. Kane's™ retaliated by hiring attorney Leonard Englander to sue the state and to force Gonzalez to take down his web page. On December 19, 2002 Lenny Englander convinced Judge Walt Logan (without Gonzalez's knowledge) to sign a temporary injunction against Gonzalez based on a lame trademark violation excuse. The story made it to USA Today. Eight months later Lenny Englander represented Ambassador Melvin Sembler who wanted a certain article once belonging to him removed from an Internet sale site. On August 26, 2003 Judge Logan met in secret once again with Lenny Englander and signed a temporary injunction against Ray Bradbury. This one based on a flimsy charge of stalking. This story made it to the Washington Post. What has never before been reported is that Judge Walt Logan once did some legal work for Englander's law firm. Even more telling is that Kane's™ CEO and his wife, and Mel Sembler's son and his wife have been socially active with Judge Walt Logan and his wife Lin at a foundation founded by Sembler's business partner and on whose board sits Lenny Englander! Read all about it!


1995: Kane's™ settles with AG. In 1990 Bob Butterworth, the longtime Democratic Attorney General for the state of Florida, launched a statewide investigation into the furniture business. That investigation culminated in 1995 when a group of furniture retailers were given fines for misleading advertising practices. Kane's™ Furniture of Pinellas Park (AKA Savon Furniture) , with annual sales of $90 million, was fined $80,000 (the second-highest fine levied) and the company signed an agreement with the Attorney General barring it from advertising prices as discounts unless they were lower than the bona fide price. [1] [2]

Five years later complaints were mounting against Kane's™ Furniture once again. The Better Business Bureau of West Florida gave Kane's™ an unsatisfactory rating because of complaints about poor customer service and delivery of defective furniture. The Pinellas County Consumer Protection Agency received 29 complaints against Kane's™--but most had been fixed.[1] And many, many alleged consumers were going to the Internet and to the press to express their dissatisfaction with Kane's™. In order for the reader to better appreciate the seriousness of the complaints against Kane's™ and the sheer numbers of complaints, we have included some Kane's™ web gripe sites and other publications below: 4-22-02
RipOff Report 4-20-2000
planetfeedback 9-12-02
planetfeedback 3-24-01
RipOff Report 2-11-03
St. Petersburg Times - Dec.9, 1998
St. Petersburg Times - 11/9/00
Orlando Sentinel - Jul.. 6, 2002
St. Petersburg Times - Jul. 10,2002
St. Petersburg Times - 4-27-01
St. Petersburg Times - 3-18-01
St. Petersburg Times - 3-6-03
St. Petersburg Times - 6-4-01 6-30-02
Saturday-8 11-19-02
My 3 Cents 12-19-03

Another indicator of the displeasure of some folks about Kane's™ might possibly be revealed from the rather large number of civil suits Kane's™ has been involved with. See Kane's™ civil suits.

Gonzo's web page.
But no consumer web page or newspaper article was as hard on Kane's™ as Manuel "Manny" Gonzalez (AKA Gonzo) was on his web page Thanks to the Internet's Wayback Machine Gonzalez's pages still exist: - main page captured on 11-30-02
letters received #1 - 63 - captured on 11-21-02
letters received #64 - 104 - captured on 11-28-02
letters received #105 - ?? - not captured

Worse for Kane's™ by 2001 the Attorney General's office was once again looking at the company for "misrepresentations in ads, delivery of incomplete orders, credit errors, and otherwise poor customer service." "It is by far, by far, the most complaints we've ever received about a retail business," said Jacqueline "Jackie" Dowd, an assistant attorney general with the economic crimes unit in Orlando. By early July 2002 Dowd reported that the Attorney General's Office had gathered 289 complaints in 18 months, "which is just an awful lot and significantly more than we receive about any other furniture store." A month later the total had risen to 515 (though Dowd admitted there could be some duplicates in that total). [1] [2] [3]

Worse still for Kane's™ the Attorney General's Office was reading Gonzo's web page. On 7-26-02 Angie Sheridan, an Assistant Attorney General, sent Gonzalez's this email giving him instructions to pass on to consumers instructions on how to make an official complaint to the state. If you have read some of the alleged consumer complaints above you will see that the alleged consumers were making some pretty serious charges against Kane's™. From 289 complaints to around 500 in a month--that indicates an alarming rate of growth in numbers of complaints. In the midst of this adversity, Kane™ CEO Irwin Novack claimed that 90% of the 289 complaints had been resolved and then [by apparently comparing an alleged 120,000 deliveries the company makes a year to 289 complaints] he added, "289 complaints (means) a satisfaction rate of over 99.9% and I think anybody would be happy with that. We'd like to have zero complaints, but I think that's an acceptable percentage." [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

2002: AG offers to settle with Kane's™. At the conclusion of its investigation the Attorney General's Office charged Kane's™ with false advertising practices — including advertising that everything is on sale when it was not — and failing to respond adequately to customer complaints about defective furniture, incomplete orders, delivery and other problems. Like it did in 1995 the state agency offered to settle with Kane if Kane would sign an "assurance of voluntary compliance agreement" where the company would agree to not falsely advertise sale items, respond to customers' complaints immediately or refund their money, implement a system to track customer service requests and hire a customer service manager. (Apparently the company had already hired a customer service manager.) Also Kane's™ would have to agree to pay a $400,000 fine--the largest fine ever for a Florida furniture chain according to Ms. Dowd. [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

2002: Kane's™ refuses to settle and sues the AG. Irwin Novack refused to sign this agreement. Instead Kane's™ sued the Attorney General's Office charging that the AG had exceeded its authority in its "investigation and the relief requested;" and alleged that the settlement terms would give Kane's™ competitors an unfair advantage. Pinellas Circuit Judge W. Douglas Baird dismissed the suit and Kane appealed. [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [11] [Also see Kanes vs Florida, 6th Circuit, 02002099CI, 3/13/02 and Kanes vs. Florida state office of the Attorney General, 6th Circuit # 02003694CI, 05/08/02 ]

Nov. 2002: AG sues Kane's™. In November 2002 the Attorney General's Office sued Kane's™ Furniture alleging, "Unfair and deceptive trade practices: scheme to defraud, civil theft, common law cheating, selling used goods as new, advertising misrepresentations and finance and warranty violations. This 15 store chain has generated an unprecedented number of complaints for a retail business about misleading ads, defective furniture, worthless warranties, unfulfilled promises of delivery and unfair billing practices." The case number is L02-3-1004. The defendants are Kane's™ Furniture and d/b/a Savon Furniture; Irwin Novack, individually and as director of Kane Furniture Corporation; Doug Bravata, individually and as a managing authority of Kane Furniture Corporation." [1] [2] [3] [4] [5][10] [11]

The state had subpoenaed credit card charges from World Financial Network National Bank (an Ohio company that handles Kane's™ store credit card program) and had received "three file drawers of customer complaints about credit card charges," Dowd said. [See complaints against World Financial Network National Bank.] Ms. Dowd noted that there were thousands of complaints (not knowing how many were possible duplicates). Only 370 complaints were analyzed for the state's law suit. It was noted that each complaint of unfair business practices could cost Kane's™ up to $10,000 (up to $15,000 if it involves an elderly or disabled person). In addition to any fine, the state sought another $500,000 from Kane's™ to "make whole the initial 370 disputed claims." Kane's™ chief executive Irwin Novack was sued both as an officer of the company and personally based on state allegations that he controlled and directed the unfair practices. Actually, the state was so upset with Kane's that, according to Furniture Today, "The complaint also seeks to shut down Kane's, although "I would expect it not to go that far," Dowd said." [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Kane's™ donates money to Republican contender Charlie Crist for AG. But there was a problem of timing. After 16 years in office, Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth had been term limited out and could not run again for office in the November 2002 election. The leading Republican contender was Charlie Crist (now a contender for governor). On 10/01/2002 Kane™ Furniture donated $25,000 to the Republican Party of Florida. Irwin M. Novack contributed $500 (the legal limit) to Crist in 2000, 2001 and 2002. Charlie crist won the election.

Englander persuades Logan to issue a temporary injunction on Gonzalez to take down his web site while Kane's™ prepares to sue him. The allegations found on Manny Gonzalez's web page and other pages, plus other complaints filed with consumer groups and with the AG's office had given the state sufficient grounds to bring a law suit against Kane's™. It remained to be proved (or disproved) in court whether these serious charges were true. In the meantime, Gonzo's web page was really hurting business for Kane's™. According to USA Today [1-7-03] and to the AP, Manny Gonzalez said, "Their attorney called me and said if I didn't take the site down, they'd have me and my wife put in jail. Now they're suing me for quite a bit of money."

On December 19 attorney Leonard Englander of Englander & Fischer, P.A. got Pinellas County Circuit Judge Walt Logan to issue a temporary injunction to deny Manny Gonzalez his free speech by making Gonzalez take down his site. [6th Circuit # 02010017CI, originally brought incorrectly against Diane and Robert Gonzalez] This meeting was without notice to Gonzalez who found out when finally served court papers. Surprisingly the injunction was not issued because Manny Gonzalez was showing Kane's™ in a bad light. It was issued because Englander alleged that Gonzalez was violating Kane's™ trademark!

Kane's™ web page is at

Gonzalez's site was at

Lisa Brock, a PR specialist for Kane's™, said the sole issue is one of trademark infringement. "It is downright offensive to have false claims aired in such a way, she said, "particularly when a trademark that is respected and well-regarded is being unfairly assaulted like this." Kane's™ claimed that customers trying to reach its web site ( were confused by the other site. [7]

State Attorney General officials were furious at Judge Logan's decision. Angie Sheridan, Assistant Attorney General in the economic crimes unit in Orlando stated, "We think it's the most outrageous thing." She said the state would file a "friend of the court" brief on Gonzalez's behalf, and she described the injunction as both "anti-consumer and a violation of free speech." [2] [4] But Judge Logan agreed with Leonard Englander. Lenny Englander and Judge Logan were no strangers either. In 1988 Lenny Englander's law firm (then Stobla, Englander, Andrews and Shames) sued one Sandy Hall for collection of legal fees [88-2893-11] The firm's attorney was Walt Logan. Walt Logan also represented Englander's firm in another 1988 collection suit--this one against one Mark Deeb. [88-17380-19]. Logan signed the injunction in Dec. 2002. Leonard Englander is on the board of directors of the Florida Holocaust Museum. It was probably sometime in 2003 that a social committtee called the Diner Committee was formed for the museum's Awards Banquet that was held on Jan. 17, 2004. Judge Walt Logan and his wife Lin were on that committee. So were Irwin and Patty Novack!
SIDEBAR. Christopher Lamparello, a New York man, runs the web page which advocates homosexuality. Rev. Jerry Falwell opposes homosexuality and sued and won the right to have the name transferred to himself. based on trademark laws. Lamparello, represented by Public Citizen with supporting briefs from the ACLU, the ACLU of Virginia, and Intellectual Property Law Faculty won an appeal in 2005 in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Public Citizen argued that Lamparello’s speech is indisputably protected and not applicable to trademark laws because the site features noncommercial speech. Public Citizen argued that the District Court’s opinion should have been reversed because viewers of the web site were unlikely to be confused about whether Falwell sponsors the Lamparello web site. “Lamparello’s website looks nothing like Reverend Falwell’s,” the court ruled. “Lamparello clearly created his web site intending only to provide a forum to criticize ideas, not to steal customers.” [8]

Another excellent example is the Joseph Maxwell case discussed in CircleID in the article Non-Commercial Website Domain Names Using Trademarks. The Lamparello case and the Maxwell case are but two of many successful strikedowns of the trademark defense. The header on Gonzalez's site states the "Furniture Store From Hell . . Kanes-Furniture" and is underscored with animated, roaring flames. No one would mistake his page to be "The Kane's™ Furniture" page. His page was not a commercial page. I believe Gonzalez's would have won, had he not settled. Again this affirms that the injunction was not about trademark.

No one questions that Kane's™ was the rightful owner of the mark "Kane's" in 2002, but it had no trademark on the name "Kane's Furniture." Kane's™ Furniture of Pinellas Park, Florida was founded in 1948. Another store, Kane's Furniture of Sarasota, Florida, was founded in 1949. The two are separate companies. When Kane's™ Furniture of Pinellas Park opened a store in Sarasota, it took the name Sovan Furniture, presumably because there was already a Kane's Furniture in Sarasota. There's a Kane Furniture of Ormond Beach, Florida and a Kane Furniture in Charlottesville, Virginia. There's a Kane's Ace Hardware Inc. in Homosassa, Fl., a Kane's Ace Hardware Inc. in Homosassa Springs and a Kane's Appliance Service in Vero Beach, Fl. There are Kane's all over. Kane's™ did not seek injunctions against these corporations and the reason is clear. Kane's™ wanted Gonzo's site down because it was hurting Kane's™ business. Trademark infringement was just a trumped-up excuse.

A judge gagging a man who's performing a public service for a trademark infringement! Naturally, the story sparked national attention and was covered by USA Today and AP as well as by statewide papers such as the Tallahassee Democrat, the Orlando Sentinel, The St. Petersburg Times, plus Tampa's ABC TV Action News. Many free speech and trademark watchdogs still have their eye on the Englander/Logan gag order including Out Law dot com, Chilling Effects, Freedom Forum, The Trademark Blog, and Info Shop News.
AG Charlie Crist dismisses the state's case against Kane's™. Charlie Crist won the November election and in January 2003 he became Florida's new Attorney General. Under his leadership the state mediated a settlement with Kane's™ Furniture on April 6, 2004. Under the settlement the Attorney General's Office dismissed its complaint against Kane's™, Kane™ was allowed to maintain that it "employs policies, procedures blah blah blah which resolve the questions and allegations raised by the State in its complaint." And Kane™ would donate $100,000 to Goodwill Industries (and get the appropriate tax credit). Signing the settlement for Kane's™ were Leonard Englander and Irwin Novack.[9] On April 18, 2004, just 12 days after signing the settlement, The St. Pete Times carried this complaint against Kane's™ and on August 9, 2004 this complaint was submitted to planetfeedback.


Prominent Pinellas County citizen Melvin Sembler is a multimillionaire who builds shopping centers. He is the former chairman of the national GOP Finance Committee. In 2001 after Mr. Sembler bought the ambassadorship to Italy, his company threw a going away party for him. Federal Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich was there. Leonard Englander and Irwin and Patty Novack were guests too. It was reported that they were discussing their up coming trip to the World Series. The Novacs were going to take in the shows, and "the Englanders were going for the sights."

Another business venture founded by Sembler is Straight, Inc. Straight treated kids for drug addictions and became the biggest chain of juvenile drug rehabilitation programs in the world. But Straight was also one of the most destructive teen rehabs the world has ever seen. Over 40 former clients have committed suicide. A man named Ray Bradbury had been forced into Straight when he was a teen. He says he was severely abused and "brainwashed" there. After graduation from Straight he became a Straight counselor. He says it dawned on him one day that Straight was not helping kids; it was destroying them. Ever since he has been a vocal critic of Straight.

Officially Straight stopped treating kids for addictions in 1993 and in 1995 changed its name to its current name the Drug Free America Foundation. Like so many Straight survivors Bradbury is not so sure that Straight really ever closed; and even if it did, he wants to make sure no existing programs which use Straight's therapeutic method, are abusive. So since Straight closed in 1993, and perhaps even before, Mr. Bradbury has being going through Mr. Sembler's trash looking for any data that will help him document Straight's crimes, and also looking to see whether Mr. Sembler has any financial or other ties to any of the new Straights.

Bradbury's purpose for going through Sembler's trash might have been to monitor Straight and the new Straights, but Ray Bradbury says he has found some items through the years that he just wasn't prepared to find. Take for instance classified documents. In a court document Bradbury claims that he has found records of travel times of very high-level government officials including former President Bush, arrival and departure times at airports, tail numbers of aircraft used and sometimes even the names of pilots. A would-be terrorist's dream sheet!

Another unusual item Bradbury says he found in Sembler's trash was a penile pump that the ambassador had discarded. Leonard Englander, Ambassador Sembler's attorney, has admitted in court documents that the penile pump had in fact belonged to his client, and Sembler is demanding it back. For several years Mr. Bradbury stored the items he has retrieved from Sembler's trash. And then one day in 2003 Mr. Bradbury did a most remarkable thing. He advertised for sale on eBay the penile pump. Why? He says he did it to bring attention to the plight of Straight survivors.

The Florida Holocaust Museum was founded by Walter Loebenberg, former president of Straight Foundation. Melvin Sembler and his wife Betty were founding board members. Former Straight board member Dr. Bruce Epstein is the former director of the museum. Former Straight board member Alen Alweiss is the General Counsel for the museum. Jay Synder, another former Straight board member, is also on the museum's board. Lenny Englander is also on the museum's board. In 2000 the Museum started a "To Life" Award. Walter Loebenberg and his wife Edie were the first recipients. In 2001 Bruce Epstein and his wife Amy received it. In 2003 Loebenberg's former Colony Bank business partner Barry Alpert and his wife Judith won the award. And in 2004 Mel Sembler's son Brent Sembler and his wife Debbie were recipients. For these reasons Straight critics like Ray Bradbury claim the Florida Holocaust Museum was founded as a smoke screen to deflect away human rights abuses by Straight officials.

In 2004 the museum's awards banquet was held on Jan 17. Awards' committees worked through 2003 in preparation for the banquet. One social committee was the Diner Committee. Prominent on the Diner Committee were Mel and Betty Sembler's son Greg and his wife Elizabeth; Bruce Epstein and his wife Amy; Craig Sher (CEO of Sembler Company) and his wife Jan (who is on the board of trustees for the museum); board trustee member Jim Soble who is legal council for Sembler Company and his wife Ann; Herb Goldstein and wife Alene (a Herb Goldstein was a founding director of Straight); Irwin and Patty Novack and Judge Walt Logan and his wife Lin.

Ambassador Sembler was understandably embarrassed about the eBay ad and he wanted it removed from the Web so he hired Leonard Englander to get the damn thing off. And so here's the situation on August 26, 2003. Leonard Englander's law firm had had various business dealings with Judge Logan back when Logan was just an attorney. In 2003 the Englanders and the Novacks, Semblers' son and his wife, Sembler company CEO and his wife, and other Sembler cronies and their wives were serving on a social committee with Judge Walt Logan and his wife. Just a year before Irwin Novack and Kane's™ Furniture were outraged because Manny Gonzalez's was exposing allegedly bad business practices at Kane's™, and to shut Gonzalez up, Walt Logan signed a temporary injunction against him on a trumped-up trademark infringement charge. In January 2003 Englander and Logan had embarrassed the Sixth Circuit because of the gag order they conjured up to get Gonzalez's stuff off the Internet--but it had worked.

And now just eight months later, on August 26, 2003, Lenny Englander had another extremely wealthy client who wanted something shut down on the Internet. So Leonard Englander approached Walt Logan again to sign an emergency Temporary Injunction Without Notice. This time Leonard Englander was claiming that Bradbury was a stalker and his crime so serious that if notice were given the Defendant he would just "accelerate the occurrences of stalking..." So Bradbury wasn't even notified that a hearing was being held!

Ray Bradbury is just one of many former Straight clients who continue to protest Ambassador Melvin Sembler for his role in the destruction of tens of thousands of American teenagers at Straight, Inc. Bradbury (second from left in photo) is shown picketing Sembler's home in 2001 along with many others. Leonard Englander sought an injunction against Ray Bradbury (and only Ray Bradbury) calling him (and ony him) a stalker.

Judge Logan has had social ties to Sembler and Novack, and he has done work for Englander before he was a judge. Neither of Logan's gags were sufficiently pressing that a hearing could not have been held between the accusser and the accused. Bradbury has written a complaint to the Florida Bar: complaint p. 1, complaint p. 2, complaint p. 3. Attorney Joy Demas has been assigned to the investigation by the Bar. But Bradbury will have high hurdles to clear. Leonard Englander is a Fellow of the Florida Bar Foundation and a Bronze Circle Lifetime donor of money to the foundation. From 2004 - 2005 he was chairman of the Business Certification Litigation Committee of the Florida Bar. Englander's law partner at Englander & Fischer, P.A. H. James Fischer (deceased 2004) was the former President of the St. Petersburg Bar Association. In 1991 attorney Howard P. Ross was the chairman of a committee formed to build an Ambassadorial Pavilion to Melvin Sembler and Joseph Zappala (another Straight cofounder) for their greatness as statesmen. In 2002 Englander served with Howard Ross on the Bar's Business Certification Litigation Committee.

SLAPP SUITS. Chilling Effects (a collaboration among law school clinics and the Electronic Frontier Foundation) links to the Joseph Maxwell trademark case mentioned in the sidebar above. In its lead-in to the article Chilling Effects states, "we are getting close to the point where companies that sue over such websites have to consider seriously the possibility that they will not only lose the suit, but face a malicious prosecution action or other counter-measure from the consumer critic seeking damages for having been sued." While suing one critic just to shut him up might be grounds for a malicious prosecution, a wealthy individual or corporation that sues its critics as a matter of course just to shut them up may be guilty of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP). Ray Bradbury is not the only Stright critic to be enjoined by a court to silence him. In 1989 Ms. Tempie Fortson Worthy spoke out publicly against Straight - Dallas for allegedly abusing her daughter. Straight got an injunction to shut her up. Most people reading this article have never even heard of Straight even though Straight's abuses would put Abu Ghraib to shame. And there is a reason for this. For over 20 years Straight has sued or threatened to sue those who would expose Straight's abuse as this link documents. The Ray Bradbury injunction appears to be part of Straight's 20 year program of SLAPP.

Sadly, exactly one year from the day Walt Logan silenced Manny Gonzalez, on Dec. 19, 2003 Maria Spelleri, writing for her 80 yearold mother Jane Spelleri, made a blistering complaint on about Savon Furniture allegedly selling used furniture as new to her mother. But Bob Butterworth was gone and Charlie Crist appears not to have cared. And Manny Gonzalez has been hushed forever. Today Attorney General Charlie Crist is running for governor of Florida. His finance chairman is Brent Sembler. Sembler Company CEO Craig Sher, Irwin Novack and Thelma Rothman (wife of Kane's™ founder) all serve on the Pinellas Education Foundation. In October 2005 Kane™ became a member of Better Business Bureau for Florida's West Coast. Just three months before Kane's™ became a member of the Better Business Bureau for Central Florida. The BBB for Central Florida points out that it has received only one complaint against Kane's™ in central Florida in the last 36 months. While that is certainly a great improvement, one can not but wonder how many (if any) people could have been too intimidated to file a report if they wanted to. One just need do a Google search on "Kane's Furniture" to see that the $90 million in annual sales company sues its critics--even the state of Florida! Furthermore, who would you report to if you had a complaint? Attorney General Charlie Crist is not interested in complaints against Kane's™ Furniture and Kane's™ itself is part of the Better Business Bureau.

Nevertheless, old complaints continue to haunt Kane's™. links to Kanes Furniture Fraud, Donald Rehm's still active 2002 gripe site, as does Super Leather Furniture Guide. As a matter of fact if you do an Internet Google search on " "kanes furniture" fraud " you will get a bunch of sites that have nothing to do with alleged fraud at Kane's™ Furniture. But if you do a Google search on " "kanes furniture fraud" " you'll get about a dozen sites still linking to Kanes Furniture Fraud. And yes, Kane's™ continues to get new complaints as noted below:
As for this writer I will never again have any dealings with any Better Business Bureau in Florida--or anywhere else.


1. Kane's accused of false advertising, St. Petersburg Times, 7-10-02
State accuses Kane's of deceptive practices St. Petersburg Times, 11-27-02
Kane's sues Fla. AG in ad, service dispute, Furniture Today 8-5-02
Florida attorney general suing Kane's Furniture Today 12/16/2002
Kane's sues over customer's web site Orlando Sentinel 1-7-03
Kane's silences critical Web site, St. Pete Times, 1-7-03
Public Citizens
9. Ninth Circuit # 02-CA-11358 o, State of Florida vs. Kane Furniture et al., Mediated Settlement Agreement
AG Consumer Complaints 2002
11. Biz Journal 4-8-02

Monday, December 26, 2005

Former Sembler gossip columnist joins 6th Circuit Grievance Committee

The Sixth Circuit is the circuit court for Pinellas and Pasco Counties, Florida. This court has a growing reputation for having a double standard--one set of rules for ordinary people; another for wealthy Republican donors. For example, former ambassador to Italy Melvin Sembler is currently suing the former national chairman of his Straight Seventh Step Society to reclaim his discarded penis pump--and for mental anguish. Already in that suit Judge Walt Logan has issued an injunction against Bradbury without Bradbury's knowledge. Later Judge Logan attended a social with Sembler's attorney and Sembler's son. For reasons like that we are acutely interested in any activities of the Sixth Circuit, more especially as those activities might relate to Mel Sembler.

When the Semblers are in Rome magazines like Gossip News cover their frequent social outings. But back in St. Petersburg, Florida that job is left up to the St. Petersburg Times and, until her retirement last year, frequently to reporter Mary Evertz . Ms. Evertz covered Mel's affaires d'etat and Betty's ruby laced evening gowns. In fact her very last article before her retirement (published on April 22, 2002) was about the security concerns Ambassador Sembler faced in Rome. His driver and a police officer rode with him to work in a bulletproof BMW, she wrote, with a van with four policemen in the lead and another van with four cops trailing.

When Ms. Evertz wrote her security article, the royal couple had Jan Sher's aunt Sonja (sister of former Straight board member Marilyn Benjamin) and her husband Irwin as house guests. For lunch that day Sembler entertained US Rep. Porter Goss, a Sanibel Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and his wife, Mariel. His guest for dinner was US Rep. C.W. Bill Young. George and Laura Bush were recent house guests, and back in February fellow Australian Russell Crowe had showed up to schmooz with 80 people the Semblers had invited over to view the film A Beautiful Mind at the embassy's private movie theater.

The Palazzo Margherita is the home of the US embassy in Rome. According to Mary Evertz it was the palace for Italy's beloved Queen Margherita. Ms. Evertz writes that Julius Caesar once owned the area and "it was here, it is said, that Caesar entertained Cleopatra." From her we learn that Sembler's office is the palace's entire ballroom with its "magnificent" Murano chandelier which "casts a golden glow over the four large tables with marble tops that originally were commissioned by the queen for the room." "At the residence entrance," Ms. Evertz writes, "is a mezuza, which two Italian rabbis have blessed, and 6-foot-tall porcelain flowers purchased at the Temple Beth-El Art Show grace the entry foyer."

According to Sembler the embassy has twice the staff as the one in Australia "therefore, more or less, twice the amount of work." Ms. Evertz adds that work at the embassy proceeds at a "hectic pace." We learn from Ms. Evertz's article that in the first five months in office, the Semblers had already entertained 3,000 guests! Rebecca Winke was one of Mel's party guests the following year. As a Northwestern alumni living in Italy, she was one of Sembler's guest at the Mother of All Northwestern Alumni Living in Europe Bash that he threw in 2002. When she met Ambassador Sembler, Ms. Winke says he shook her hand and started into a dialogue about Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug work. When she managed to get a word in, she says she asked the ambassador about his career before being a diplomat. "Hey, I’m no diplomat! I’m a businessman!" she says Sembler replied.

Perhaps Ms. Winke wasn't overly awed by Nan Reagan's anti-drug crusade--after all, Ms. Winke had been a liberal activist when a student at Northwestern. But Mary Evertz might be more easily impressed by Sembler's tough stance on juvenile drug use. Her father was Judge William Gardiner--a highly respected county juvenile judge who was noted for his concern about wayward youths.

Mary Evertz's security article was the first of three by The Times discussing the Sembler's 50th wedding anniversary party in 2002. But when Ms. Evertz is part of the story herself as when she chaired the Boy Scout event awarding Sembler Company CEO Craig Sher with his Distinguished Citizens Award, somebody else at The Times has to write. That's what happened when Mary and Bud Evertz were hobnobbing with the Semblers at the Sembler's Nozze d'Oro which is Italian for The Mother of all Toga Parties. Mary and Bud and all the guests were seated at tables named for towns that have special significance in the Semblers' lives. Dr. Bruce Epstein sat at the Dyersburg, Tenn. labeled table--named for Betty Sembler's birthplace.

There were 300 invited guests. The list included ambassadors from Australia, Colombia, Cyprus, the Netherlands, Great Britain and Belgium, the Israeli ambassador to Italy, the Italian Minister of Defense, plus US representatives to Denmark, Slovakia and Mauritius. Space probably precluded Ms. Park from naming everyone who was there but she did mention many guests by name. There was Brent and Debbie Sembler, Steve and Diane Sembler, Craig and Jan Sher, Marilyn Benjamin, George and Pam Campbell, Bud and Mary Evertz, Dr. Will and Nancy Greenberg, Bruce and Mary Ann Marger, Sonya and Irwin Miller, Ira and Beverly Mitlin, Ron and Fagl Oxman, Dave and Adele Pinkser, Thelma Rothman, Ron and Sherry Sacino, Don and Jane Silverberg, Mike and Sandy Slomka, and "an orthopedic surgeon who once treated Betty Sembler."

Why was everyone named except "an orthopedic surgeon who once treated Betty Sembler?" That's weird, but we have a theory. In those days the Semblers and Straight were getting a lot of negative Internet press. Suppose Mel Sembler started in on Nancy Reagan's anti-drug message and how he was the idea behind "Just Say No!" Suppose the Israeli ambassador to Italy or Antonio Martino, the Italian Minister of Defense, replied, but what about the things our intelligence people are reading on the web that Straight tortured kids? Dr. Bruce Epstein sat at the table with these two along with Greg and Liz Sembler. If Greg Sembler downplayed the Internet reports, any good intelligence officer would think, but he is Mels' son, what else could he say. But Dr. Epstein is knowledgeable of Straight. He would be more credible--but was he under any obligation to voluntarily disclose that he had been a Straight board member himself? And besides, the "orthopedic surgeon who once treated Betty Sembler" sat at that table too.

The year before Wes Fager had reported on how Mel Sembler had probably quashed a state attempt to close Straight and how, subsequently, Straight Foundation board member Donald Sullivan, MD had resigned from Straight and became positioned on the state Senate's committee that would oversee any investigation of wrong doing by Sembler. The year before that Donald Sullivan's wife Judge Irene Sullivan attended Betty Sembler's birthday party. This was well publicized on the Internet. Donald Sullivan is a noted orthopedic surgeon in St. Petersburg. Was he the unidentified surgeon sitting at the Dyersburg Table?

More icing. May 10, 2000 was Mel Sembler's 70th birthday. Mary Evertz wrote about Sembler having breakfast with his three sons (even Steve was there). Before flying off to Washington with Betty, the sons gave their dad a green a Mercedes sports convertible. It was a good week for Mel Sembler, Mary wrote, he also received the Order of Australia. August 8, 2000 was Betty's turn. Mary covered Betty's 69th birthday and announced that the governor had named Betty Sembler Day in all of Florida for her work on drug issues. Mary wrote, "She got the word from the governor himself at the Republican National Convention when they had adjoining boxes for Gov. George W. Bush's acceptance speech." Wow!

Lennie Bennett is another Times reporter assigned to cover the gossip beat on the Semblers. On Sep 9, 2001 it was Bennett who wrote about the 100 guests at Gratzzi's for Betty Sembler's 70th birthday party. He wrote, "Among all the people I meet, she has always been special to me. Her warmth, kindness and total lack of pretention shine through." In 1999 when Mary Evertz cochaired the committee that selected Mel Sembler for his Distingiushed Citizen Award from the Boy Scouts, Lennie Bennett wrote the story. And when the Semblers joined Bud and Mary Evertz to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary, Bennett covered that story too. Fellow Times reporter Betty Jean Miller was Mary and Bud's matron of honor.

Betty Jean Miller was no stranger to the Semblers either, once having written an article about a dinner in the Semblers' honor for their support of Straight which raised $300,000. Another article by her covered a Sembler trip to Washington to get drug war legislation passed. In Nov. 2001 Mary wrote about two parties the Semblers went to in Washington. At one, Betty wore "a gown by St. Petersburg-New York designer Peggy Jennings. For the evening she chose a two-piece metallic and wool ensemble in pewter." Mary also wrote about Betty Sembler helping Lynne Cheney decorate the VP's home. In another Nov. 2001 article Mary Evertz wrote about the party Sembler Company threw for the old man before going to Italy. She quoted Roxanne Roberts of the Washington Post stating, "Today, 'ambassador' is more than a fancy title; it's a legal position." In Jan. 2001 she wrote about Mel and Betty schmoozing with the Cheney's at ball parties.

In Oct. 2000 Mary wrote, "Last week, Sembler was in Boston for the first of the Bush-Gore debates, jetting back to the Tampa Bay area and arriving at 3 a.m. Wednesday. By 4:30 p.m. he was in Ybor for the grand gala for the new entertainment complex. He left again on the campaign trail, then was back in St. Petersburg to observe Yom Kippur with his family before heading out again." In Sep. 1999 she wrote about the Semblder's vacation to Ireland. In Jan. 1999 Mary was covering the Semblers at Jeb Bush's inaugural ball. "If you think he's popular," she quotes Betty, "you should see what happens when his brother George W. is in a crowd." And she adds that the Semblers just got back from a trip to Israel with George W. Bush. Mary notes that the Semblers were asked to fly back with the governor to Tallahassee. And on it goes.

The Saint Petersburg Times and its writers have forgotten the history that The Times itself had almost single-handedly written about the Late Great Straight Holocaust. It is because of their newly heaped praise that Melvin and Betty Sembler have become the Saviours of America's youth that they are regarded as today. Yet, in all their blustering, The Times' writers never once bothered asking the obvious. At the Sembler's gala wedding anniversary Mary Jane Park had noted that there was a table labeled Dyersburg, Tennessee for Betty's hometown, but where was a table publicized for St. Joseph, Missouri--Mel Sembler's hometown? In 1999 Mary Evertz noted that Betty's mother Fay Etta Schlesinger was at Jeb Bush's inaugural ball. Again in 2001, at a Republican fund raising dinner, Ms. Evertz reported that Mel Sembler had brought his mother-in-law Fay Etta. But where was his own mother?

Since the day the Semblers arrived in Pinellas County, Florida they had been proudly honoring and presenting Betty's parents; but there was never a mention of Mel's own parents. Worse, Mary Evertz, Mary Jane Park nor any other reporter ever put two and two together. Mel, you always present your in-laws, why don't you ever talk about your own parents? Fortunately Straight survivors Marti Heath and Samantha Monroe looked deeper. They found out why Sembler does not talk about his father. It appears his dad was a bookie. That story is here.

Mary Evertz has done as much as anyone to perpetuate the legend of Melvin and Betty Sembler--wealthy socialites deeply concerned about the nations' youth. Mel Sembler, a man who let American taxpayers daily heat, cool and light an entire ballroom just for his personal use. A man who used his ballroom office to plan perhaps more parties and to entertain more guests than Michael Jackson ever did. The man who used his ballroom office to get the US government to buy a $113 million monument to celebrate his own Greatness!

What is Mary Evertz doing these days? She is a public member of the Sixth Judicial Circuit Grievance Committee. She says, "I look forward to making certain lawyers in Florida represent their clients with integrity."

Related stories:
Articles by Mary Evertz on the Semblers:
Chamber recognizes four community leaders Series by MARY JANE PARK, Sep 21, 2003; pg. 8
Menorah Manor marks its 18th anniversary Series by MARY JANE PARK, May 7, 2003; pg. 8
To Rome with caution by MARY EVERTZ, Apr 22, 2002, pg. 1.D
Sembler family gets ready for Rome Series by MARY EVERTZ, Nov 23, 2001; pg. 8.D
Diplomats get a festive sendoff Series by MARY EVERTZ, Nov 2, 2001; pg. 8.D
Semblers await word on posting to Italy Series by MARY EVERTZ, Aug 3, 2001; pg. 3.D
Celebrity watching at its best Series by MARY EVERTZ, Jan 26, 2001; pg. 4.D
Prominent Floridians among those making the scene Series by Mary Evertz, Jan 20, 2001; pg. 10.A
Sembler juggles job, family, politics, honor Series by MARY EVERTZ, Oct 13, 2000; pg. 6.D
Latin musical stars former Miss Florida Series by MARY EVERTZ, Aug. 13, 2000, pg. 8F
Australia bestows honor on Sembler Series by MARY EVERTZ, May 14, 2000; pg. 8.F
Semblers visit Ireland, Australia by MARY EVERTZ, Sep 5, 1999; pg. 8.F
Notables welcome Bush at gala by MARY EVERTZ, Jan 10, 1999; pg. 3.F
A DELICIOUS DUET by Mary Evertz, Dec. 13, 1995

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Sixth Circuit denies request to videotape Mark Adams' Monday hearing

11-26-05 A hearing will be held Monday Nov. 28 at 0900 at the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center before Judge Robert Beach to hear Mr. Adams' motion to dismiss a criminal contempt charge brought agaisnt him by Judge Crockett Farnell. Mr. Adams' wife Lisa Adams, who is a citizen journalist member of the Tampa Bay Independent Media Center and the Tampa Bay Community Network, has submitted two requests to videotape court proceedings in this case but Judge Beach has denied both. Attorney Mark Adams claims that the court has shown favortism to the Battaglia law firm in this matter. We recommend that if you are in the area, stop by to keep the court honest. case updates and hearing details

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Judges Bill Overton and Amy Williams, Bernie McCabe and Anne Borghetti's DUI: double standards

Anne Borghetti's DUI

This story is adapted from William R. Levesque's excellent investigative article Attorney's plea deal lifts some eyebrows in The St. Petersburg Times, 5-27-01, p. 1B

Last year the Sixth Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) recommended to Governor Jeb Bush that Pinellas County Judge Amy Williams fill the vacancy opened by the sudden resignation of Judge Charles W. Cope who was about to be impeached for misconduct. Jeb Bush agreed and appointed Judge Williams to the Sixth Circuit despite the fact that she is, well she is a Democrat. Former Pinellas County Judge Williams was best known as being the judge who ordered Evel Knievel to stay away from his ex-wife Krystal. But there is a better story about Judge Williams, that's not really about her at all. Actually it's about her former campaign manager Anne F. Borghetti.

On Aug. 3, 2000 a police officer pulled over Anne Borghetti, 41, for doing 70 on McMullen Booth Road, speed limit 45, in Clearwater, Florida. Ms. Borghetti is a St. Petersburg attorney and just happened to be Pinellas County Judge Amy Williams campaign manager when Judge Williams had run successfully for her judgeship. The officer said he smelled alcohol on Ms. Borghetti's breath. Furthermore he said her eyes were red and watery. He asked her to take a field sobriety test. Ms. Borghetti told him she had not been drinking and refused to take the field test. She also refused to take a Breathalyzer. So the officer arrested her for a misdemeanor DUI charge.

Not long after her arrest, Ms. Borghetti hired Skip Olney as her defense attorney. Bernie McCabe is the states attorney in Pinellas County. Jan Olney is one of McCabe's lead trial attorneys. Skip Olney's wife is assistant states attorney Jan Olney.

Since the arrest had been made in Clearwater the case was assigned to--no, not Pinellas County Judge Amy Williams--it was assigned to Pinellas County Judge Myra McNary in Clearwater. But strangely, Pinellas County Judge Bill Overton, who presides over traffic cases in St. Petersburg and who has a "reputation for handing out less-severe sentences" had the case transferred to himself without bothering to consult Judge McNary. Judge Overton later told a reporter that, "I wouldn't normally move something from north to south county. But Olney wanted it done here rather than driving all the way to North County. I didn't mind. I was trying to do Skip a favor."

According to The St. Petersburg Times, Pinellas County prosecutors rarely reduce an alcohol-related charge to reckless driving when defendants refuse both Breathalyzer and field sobriety tests. But they did this time. On Feb. 22 prosecutors presented a deal to Judge Overton. They were willing to accept a plea of no contest to reckless driving! Chief prosecutor Bernie McCabe was not available for comment but assistant states attorney Bruce Bartlett, McCabe's chief assistant, told a reporter, "I've seen Anne Borghetti in court and at other times. It is my opinion, based on what I observed [on the police video] she was not intoxicated."

So Anne Borghetti plead no contest to reckless driving. Judge Overton accepted the plea, admitting to a reporter afterwards that the prosecutors' offer had been "generous". Judge Overton withheld a formal finding of guilt and ordered Ms. Borghetti to pay $250 in court costs. Borghetti already had attended DUI school and her license had been automatically suspended for one year for her refusal to take a Breathalyzer. According to The Times an alcohol-related reckless driving charge usually leads to penalties that include up to a $500 fine, a year probation and community service. But Borghetti wasn't fined anything, received no probation and no community service!

After the trial, Judge McNary, the judge who had originally been assigned the case, told a reporter that as far as she could remember prosecutors in her court had never offered anyone such a generous deal in a DUI case. Assistant states attorney Bruce Bartlett said, "she [Borghetti] didn't get away scot-free." Anne Borghetti said, "I got no preferential treatment. The facts warranted the disposition I got." Her attorney Skip Olney said, "I thought this case should have been dropped. Prosecutors felt she needed something more than a slap on the wrist. It wasn't a sweetheart deal. She took a beating."

Since Jeb Bush placed Florida's judiciary under the executive branch 80% of his judicial appointments have been Republicans--almost twice the percentage of the registered Republican electorate. Yet he did appoint Democrat Amy Williams to a circuit judgeship. But don't kid yourself; if 100% of his appointments were Republicans, the federal government would step in--his brother being the President notwithstanding.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Jeb Bush ends 30 years of separation of the judicial from the executive branch

If you are in the know you know that for 17 years Ambassador Melvin Sembler and his wife Betty operated the world's largest juvenile drug rehabilitation program. You also know that Straight was one of the most destructive rehab programs the world has ever witnessed. You also know that the virus started 30 years ago in Ft. Lauderdale at a US government-backed program called The Seed which lost its momentum towards becoming a national program in 1974 after the US Senate accused it of using North Korean brainwashing methods on kids.

Another reason was because citizens in Dade County had refused to allow a Seed there because the state of Florida had no provision in state code to monitor Seed foster homes where Seedlings slept at night. Art Barker appealed to then governor Reubin Askew and Askew formed a commission to recommend proceedures for the state to monitor Seed foster homes. The commission returned a recommendation that basically said the kids need to be allowed their human rights. Barker balked on this recommendation and so it was up to the state of Florida to try to enforse the new regulations on the Sembler's Straight program which followed.

But Gov. Askew, a Democrat, had other problems too. Before he came to office the governor of Florida had complete discretionary powers to appoint judges and many bad appointments had been made by Askew's immediate predecessor, Republican Claude Kirk. One of those had been the appointment of Supreme Court Justice David McCain who turned out to be so corrupt and unethical that he had to resign to save himself from impeachment.

To solve the problem Gov. Askew limited his own powers by promoting legislation to have judges appointed from beyond the control of the chief executive. Essential to system was the institution of 26, nonpartisan Judicial Nominating Commissions (JNCs) established around the state. For each commission the governor appointed three commissioners and the Florida Bar appointed three. Together those six selected three more from the public. Thus there were 26 JNC with nine commissioners each. When there was a need for the governor to appoint a judge (say a judge dies in office or is impeached and removed) attorneys interested in the vacant bench would apply to the JNC which would screen applicants and submit a list of from three to six finalists to the governor who would make the final selection. And that's how things worked in Florida for 30 years until Jeb Bush became governor.

A 1999 eMail to Jeb Bush from Frank Jimenez, the governor's assistant general counsel, outlined a proposed plan to recruit judges who are ideologically compatible with Bush. Jimenez noted that Bush himself had asked his staff to "organize attorney friends throughout the state to help recruit ideologically compatible, desirable candidates" to apply to the JNCs." "We need to be careful," wrote Jimenez, "because we don't want to create a 'kingmaker' perception." St. Petersburg attorney (now mayor) Rick Baker was specifically mentioned as a potential attorney friend. Back when he was just an attorney Rick Baker had been the local campaign chairman for both Gov. Jeb Bush and President George W. Bush. The governor made a one-line response to Jimenez's eMail, "Come by and visit with me on this."

In 2001 Bush persuaded Florida's Republican-heavy Legislature to change Askew's 30 year old system to let HIM appoint all nine members of each nominating commission. Later the law was changed to placate the Florida Bar by allowing the Bar to appoint four commissioners and the governor five. But the Bar must submit a list of three names to the governor for each recommended position, and he can reject any list. Thus, once again, the governor of Florida has total control of appointed judges. Not surprisingly, today nearly eight of every 10 commissioners are now Republican--"more than twice the party's share of the electorate."

Bush appointed his general counsel (and a former congressman) Charles Canady to the 2nd District Court of Appeal at Lakeland (the appeals court over Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough Counties). Bush has even appointed one of his staff members to a circuit judgeship.

In 2002 Gov. Bush appointed the following to the Sixth Circuit JNC: Cassandra D. Jackson, 42, of St. Petersburg, family development specialist, Family Service Centers; Sallie D. Skipper, 52, of New Port Richey, attorney, Law Offices of Skipper & Skipper, P.A.; and George E. Tragos, 52, of Clearwater, attorney, Law Office of George E. Tragos.

Related articles:


SPT 10-1-1999
SPT 5-1-2005
SPT 5-22-05
SPT 9-7-03

Sixth Circuit denies request to videotape Mark Adams' Monday hearing

A hearing will be held Monday Nov. 28 at 0900 at the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center before Judge Robert Beach to hear Mr. Adams' motion to dismiss a criminal contempt charge brought agaisnt him by Judge Crockett Farnell. Mr. Adams' wife Lisa Adams, who is a citizen journalist member of the Tampa Bay Independent Media Center and the Tampa Bay Community Network, has submitted two requests to videotape court proceedings in this case but Judge Beach has denied both. Attorney Mark Adams claims that the court has shown favortism to the Battaglia law firm in this matter.

Recent publicity in the case:

North Country Gazette Article 10 18 05

North Country Gazette Article 10 23 05

North Country Gazette Article 10 25 05 Judge Beach Refuses Camera Request

North Country Gazette Article 11 5 05 Florida Supreme Court Refuses to Limit Camera Coverage in Courts

Fintan Dunne's interview with Mark Adams on

Teknosis Link - This site has links to many more articles and contains documents showing the games played at the infamous Second District Court of Appeal

The Rule of Law has background information on this case

Since Judge Beach has denied requests to have the proceedings videotaped, we urge our Pinellas County readers to attend the hearing so as to keep the court fair and honest.

Hearing before the Honorable Judge Robert Beach
Monday, November 28, 2005 at 9:00 AM
Courtroom 14 or 16 on the 3rd Floor
Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center
14250 49th Street North in Clearwater, Florida 33762.

From Tampa, take I-275 south. After you cross the Bay, take the second exit which is the exit for Largo via Ulmerton Road. Take Ulmerton Road approximately 3 miles to 49th Street, and turn right. The courthouse will be on your left just past the first traffic light.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Jeb Bush selects Pinellas judges: merit or Republican politics?
by Wes Fager

Judges are elected in Florida. But sometimes it is necessary for the governor to appoint a judge as when there has been a death or when a judge has to be released for malfeasance. To assist the governor in his selection, Florida has what is called a Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC). In the event it is necessary for the governor to appoint a judge, the JNC screens applicants and submits a list of three to six best qualified finalists to the governor. The governor selects a judge from that list. For 30 years the JNC was as independent as reasonable and possible from the executive office of the Governor of Florida. But that all changed when Jeb Bush became governor. [See Jeb Bush ends 30 years of separation of the judicial from the executive branch by Wes Fager]

A 1999 eMail to Jeb Bush from Frank Jimenez, the governor's assistant general counsel, outlined a proposed plan to recruit judges who are ideologically compatible with Bush. "We need to be careful, because we don't want create a 'kingmaker' perception," wrote Jimenez. Jimenez noted that Bush had asked his staff to "organize attorney friends throughout the state to help recruit ideologically compatible, desirable candidates" to apply to the JNCs." St. Petersburg attorney (now mayor) Rick Baker was specifically mentioned as an attorney friend. Back when he was just an attorney Rick Baker had been the local campaign chairman for both Gov. Jeb Bush and President George W. Bush. The governor made a one-line response to Jimenez's eMail, "Come by and visit with me on this." [SPT 10-1-1999]

The St. Petersburg Times reported on Oct 4, 2005 that Governor Bush had selected three new judges for Pinellas County courts. They are George Jirotka of Belleair Shore, John Carassas of Palm Harbor and Edwin Jagger of Seminole. The question is were they selected for their abilities or because they are ideologically compatible to Jeb Bush?

George Jirotka. August 8, 2000 was an important day for Straight[1] cofounder Betty Sembler. It was her 70th birthday and Governor Jeb Bush had just declared it Betty Sembler Day in all of Florida for her work at Straight. The party was at Gratzzi's Italian Restaurant in BayWalk the multi-million dollar shopping complex her husband Ambassador Melvin Sembler, AO had built in St. Petersburg, Florida. Instead of gifts Betty had asked everyone to contribute to the Straight Foundation, Inc. which now calls itself DFAF. Almost everybody was there. Even Mayor Rick Baker, who was at another nearby luncheon, managed to stop in to say hello. Another distinguished guest was Sixth Circuit Judge Irene Sullivan who could only stay for salad.

Now this story is not about Mayor Baker, Judge Sullivan or Betty Sembler. It is about Governor Bush's appointments of judges to Pinellas courts in October 2005. Nevertheless it is worth mentioning Judge Sullivan and her husband Donald before we get to the latest judge appointments. In 1989 an inspection team for the Florida Dept. of Health out of Tallahassee was in St. Petersburg, Florida to look at Straight. The mission--to close Straight for repeated violations. But according to a later IG report, the head of the inspection team received a telephone call form her boss and was told give Straight a license or you will be fired on the spot! The IG report concluded that pressure to the Secretary of Health's office was apparently coming from Mel Sembler and from certain state senators.

After the incident, Wesley Pennington, the president of Straight, ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the state assembly, and Donald Sullivan, MD resigned his post as secretary of Straight Foundation to run successfully as a Republican for state senator. Ultimately he joined the state senate's Children and Families Committee which oversees Florida's Office of Children and Families--the very same office that had been prepared to deny Straight's license in 1989. He seemed to be in a position to act upon any investigation of Mel Sembler's prior actions.

St. Pete Times writer Stephen Nohlgren once wrote, "Florida goes to great lengths to keep judicial campaigns above the political fray. Elections are nonpartisan. Candidates can't discuss political issues. And in most counties, political parties and their executives were forbidden by state law to endorse judicial candidates." [SPT 6-10-98] But that was about to change. Early in 1998 Paul Bedinghaus, chairman of the Pinellas County Republican Party, initiated a lawsuit against the state of Florida, which would allow political parties to endorse judicial candidates. He and the party's attorney George Jirotka contended that the ban violated the party's First Amendment rights to free speech. In March 1998 Paul Bedinghaus flatly stated, "the Pinellas Republican Executive Committee has no plans to endorse judicial candidates if the lawsuit is successful. I am primarily motivated by trying to get out from under this ridiculous infringement of our rights." [SPT 3-10-98] On June 10, 1998 Sixth Circuit Judge Catherine Harlan agreed with Bedinghaus and Jirotka when she declared that the "the ban on judicial endorsements is an unconstitutional restriction of free speech."

Back in March Paul Bedinghaus had said this was a matter of principle that "the Pinellas Republican Executive Committee has no plans to endorse judicial candidates if the lawsuit is successful." Look at the newspaper report on the left. Six months after his statement the Republican party was already endorsing judicial candidates and one of them was Donald Sullivan's wife Irene. And while the Republican Party could by then promote judicial candidates, the canons of judicial ethics still prohibited a judicial candidate from seeking or touting a political endorsement or party affiliation.

In 1997 then attorney Irene Sullivan lobbied her husband's legislative colleagues to oppose a bill that would have allowed adult children of parents killed by medical malpractice to sue doctors for pain and suffering. Former state senator Don Sullivan is a noted surgeon. The bill was successfully blocked. Of the flier The St. Petersburg Times editorialized, "Perhaps Sullivan and Brown, if elected to the bench, will carry out their duties in an entirely independent and impartial manner. However, they are now officially beholden to the Republican Party, and that leaves the indelible perception of conflict of interest." On September 8, 2000 Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer had been the guest speaker at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club when she acknowledged that there were problems with the 6th Circuit. One problem she noted was that some judges had run openly on the Republican Party ticket, though no Democrats had.

[As a sidebar, it should be noted that Straight people have been very generous to Judge Sullivan's campaign. According to the Florida Department of State, Division of Elections Irene Sullivan received $1,000 from Mel and Betty Sembler in four separate $250 donations between 1997 and 1998. Former Straight Foundation President Walter Loebenberg donated $500 to Ms. Sullivan's campaign in 1998 and $250 in 1997. Former Straight board members or advisory board members attorneys Guy Perenich and Myron Mensch, Dr. Bruce Epstein and wife Amy, and Mel Gross and Raymond Bourgholtzer threw in $650 combined. DFAF Advisory Board member Susan Latvala and her husband state senator Jack Latvala donated $550 between 1997 and 1998.]

In 2000 the Pinellas County Republican Party called on George Jirotka's knowledge of Florida's Constitutional once again. By then it was legal for a local political party to endorse candidates in primary elections, but if the party used that right, the state would withhold the party's share of filing fees which had been collected from local candidates for office. Mr. Jirotka, representing the Republican Party, sued the state claiming that part of the law was unconstitutional too. This time is was the Sixth Circuit's infamous judge Charles W. Cope who agreed with him. On April 26, 2000 Judge Cope ruled that the financial penalties are unconstitutional. [In 2004 Bush filled Judge Cope's vacancy with Pinellas County Judge Amy Williams. Judge Williams is a Democrat. In fact, look back at the flier above. Amy Williams beat the Republican Party endorsed George Brown for her county judgeship.]

George Jirotka is a politician, himself. He used to be the mayor of Belleair Shore. He had three commissioners that he frequently locked horns with. But he had a plan. He persuaded three friends to run against the three incumbents. Since there hadn't been an election in Belleaire for years, the three incumbents didn't bother to file qualifying papers. After the qualifying period had ended Jirotka notified the three commissioners that they were out and that his three friends were in. The three commissioners wouldn't budge. They took a vote, ousted their boss, and elected one of themselves to be mayor.

In 2000 Governor Jeb Bush appointed Susan Bedinghaus, an assistant state attorney who had been out of law school just four years, to the Judicial Nomination Committee. She was so desirous to see that appointed justices would be selected for their expertise, that she wrote in her application for the commission that she was "committed to selecting persons who would best represent Governor Bush's ideals and principles." Her husband was Pinellas County Republican Party chairman Paul Bedinghaus. By 2003 Susan Bedinghaus was chairman of the 6th Circuit JNC!

George Jirotka was not only a legal adviser to the Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee. In 2004 he was also a regional chairman of President Bush's Pinellas / Pasco Counties' legal team. Governor Jeb Bush appointed him to serve on the JNC where he quickly became chairman. He was no longer on the JNC when the commission nominated him to Bush for a judgeship. George Jirotka is one of the new Bush appointments for the troubled Sixth Circuit. George Jirotka, 48, has been with Fowler White Boggs Banker in Tampa since 1986. He is a graduate of Columbia University. He has a master's in business administration from the University of Chicago and a law degree from the University of Texas.

John Carassas is another Pinellas County Republican politician/attorney. He is a former Clearwater Commissioners who ran successfully for Belleair's delegate to Florida's House of Representatives. [he ran against Tony DiMatteo who became the new chairman of the Pinellas County Republican executive committee in 2004.] While a Representative Mr. Carassas was lobbied by Travis Moore of Largo, representing the Specialty Agents Association of Florida, who persuaded him to propose a bill to add $20 to every insurance policy in Florida. The fee would raise at least $134-million a year. But, get this, the state wouldn't get it--insurance agents would.

After serving three years in the House, Carassas resigned to head the Tampa office of Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist. You might recall earlier this year when one of Crist's Assistant AGs was ripped off while he was being entertained by two Tampa call girls. [See Oakton Institute to Florida's Office of the Attorney General: leave our whores in Pinellas County alone.)

By the time Carassas resigned from the House, Donald Sullivan had been termed out of the Senate. So he, Sullivan, ran for and won Carassas' seat. Bush selected John Carassas, 39, to fill a new county court judgeship created by the Legislature last spring. He is a graduate of the University of South Florida and the Stetson University College of Law.

Edwin Bryant Jagger is the third new judge in Pinellas. Edwin Jagger has been an attorney with Battaglia, Ross, Dicus and Wein since 1990. He is now a partner. According to Fintan Dunne and the Democratic Underground , "Edwin Jagger started in law as Tony Battlagia's personal law clerk." Edwin's father Robert Jagger was the Public Defender for the county for 25 years. Robert Jagger is also with Battaglia. Anthony Battaglia was chairman of the Judicial Nominating Commission in 1988 and 1989. The year before, in 1987, attorney Walter A. Fullerton, III, a partner in Battaglia's law firm, and a former assistant states attorney, was appointed as a Pinellas County judge. In September 1992 Michael L. Hastings, a shareholder with Battaglia's law firm, was named to the Judicial Nominating Commission. In 1993, Howard P. Ross of Battaglia, Ross, Dicus, and Wein was appointed chairman of the civil trial certification committee of the Florida Bar. From his web-page biography Mr. Ross states that he is "available to serve as a voluntary Trial Resolution Judge" in Florida. Mr. Ross had once proposed to the St. Petersburg City Council the construction of the "Ambassador Pavilion", a monument in stone to immortalize Melvin Sembler and Joseph Zappala!(7) In 1993 Battaglia became the Pinellas-Pasco representative on the Florida Bar Board of Governors.

Mr. Jagger will fill the vacancy created by the death County Judge William Blackwood. He is a graduate of Western Carolina University, Stetson University, College of Law, and the University of Miami, School of Law. Mr. Jagger is married to the former Melissa Bianca Passafiume, daughter of Kathryn Passafiume of St. Petersburg and the late Salvatore Passafiume. Mel Sembler has neighbor named Edwin Jagger who is captain of the Treasurer Island Tennis Team. It is not known whether the two are the same.

In Jan. 2005 Gov. Jeb Bush appointed veteran prosecutor Joe Bulone as a Sixth Circuit judge to fill the vacancy left by retired Chief Judge Susan F. Schaeffer.

Related articles:


[1] From 1976 to 1993 Straight, Inc. was the biggest juvenile drug rehabilitation chain in the world. It was also one of the most destructive. It was founded by Ambassador Melvin Sembler, a long-time Republican fund raiser, and his wife Betty.

Charles Cope

In late January 2004 Pasco-Pinellas Circuit judge Judge Charles W. Cope abruptly resigned during an investigation of him by the Judicial Qualifications Commission. House Speaker Johnnie Byrd had stated that Judge Cope was, "headed for impeachment by the Florida Legislature before his abrupt resignation . . ." Judge Cope has admitted that in 2001, while he was attending a judicial conference in Carmel, California, he tried to break into the hotel room of two women. He admits he was drunk. (In 2001 Broward Circuit Judge Joyce Julian was arrested after she was found by police drunk, lying in a public area of a hotel wearing only a shirt while attending a judicial conference at the Amelia Island Plantation resort in northeast Florida.)

Later as he was facing a reprimand from the Florida State Supreme Court, Judge Cope sued the women for malicious prosecution. A 2003 study by the the Saint Petersburg Times revealed that since returning to work last August after a one-year paid leave of absence, Cope's work calendar showed no work scheduled either in his office or the courtroom for 51 days. Notwithstanding, then Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer stated that "He has one of the best work ethics of all our circuit judges." In 2002 the former chief judge of the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court and a retired appelate judge, David Patterson, was found in his Treasure Island home by his estranged wife, dead of a self inflicted gunshot wound. His wife had gotten a court order to keep him away after he had threatened her. He had been hospitalized under the Baker Act. He had been arrested for a DUI.

State Rep. Jeffrey Kottkamp, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, had instructed his staff to start putting together investigative material in preparation for presenting an impeachment hearing on Judge Cope. In 1996 Judge Cope was arrested for a DUI but that charge was dropped. The state had been forced to deal with Judge Cope after the November 2003 issue of the Reader's Digest, an internationally read magazine, gave one of three of its annual Broken Gavel awards for the worst judges in America to Judge Charles W. Cope. The headline for the Broken Gavel Award was "Sleazy, corrupt or abusive." In 2000 the Digest named Hernando County Judge Peyton Hyslop to the worst judge list.

Jeb Bush replaced Cope with county judge Amy Williams.