FORT LAUDERDALE — The U.S. Department of Justice has deferred taking action on a complaint that alleges the Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO) and the Broward County State Attorney’s Office are engaging in a conspiracy to violate the civil rights of defendants charged with crimes. The complaint, which was filed by Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, is now headed to the Miami office of the FBI.
“We note that this information is in the hands of the State Attorney’s Office, and that is the appropriate office to review these allegations,” Raymond N. Hulser, principal deputy chief of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section wrote in a June 29 letter to Finkelstein.
Finkelstein wrote back to Hulser saying it was an “insult” and a “disservice” to his agency’s mission to say the complaint was properly in the hands of the state attorney's office.
“He obviously didn’t read my complaint,” Finkelstein said in an interview this week. “To say the complaint is in the proper place with the state attorney, when my complaint is about the state attorney’s office, is simply ridiculous.”
Asked for a response to Finkelstein’s reaction, a Justice Department spokeswoman said very experienced corruption prosecutors reviewed the complaint and the department’s response was appropriate.
Hulser pointed out that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the investigative arm of the Justice Department and he advised Finkelstein to take his complaint up with the FBI regional office in Miami.
The FBI “will determine whether a federal investigation may be warranted” and then, “if appropriate, the FBI will refer the matter to the Department of Justice for a final determination regarding legal action,” Hulser wrote.
Finkelstein said he will present his complaint to the FBI, but he said he is also appealing directly to U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder for the immediate intervention of the Justice Department in the matter.
Finkelstein filed the complaint on June 13. It accuses the Broward Sheriff’s Office and the Broward State Attorney’s Office of engaging in “a scenario that smacks of obstruction of justice and corruption.”
Finkelstein’s five-page complaint, along with 115 pages of exhibits, alleges the State Attorney’s Office failed “to formally investigate allegations that several sheriff deputies obtained controlled substances by fraud.”
“This is serious. What we have is a state attorney who looks the other way when police are suspected of committing crimes and then prosecutes citizens on the word of those same police officers,” Finkelstein said. “That’s not justice, it’s a scheme.”
The Broward State Attorney’s Office has steadfastly denied Finkelstein’s accusations.
“Again, we can say that there was absolutely no impropriety at any time in the way the State Attorney’s Office handled any allegations concerning whether or not Broward Sheriff’s deputies or civilians fraudulently obtained steroids,” state attorney spokesperson Ron Ishoy said in an e-mail to South Florida Times. “Our office has never abrogated our decision-making responsibilities."
The complaint’s core allegation centers on at least 26 BSO deputies, who, according to an internal BSO investigation summary, may have obtained steroids through fraudulent means. Finkelstein’s office collected dozens of closeout memos from the state attorney’s office indicating prosecutors decided not to charge the deputies and other law enforcement officers following criminal investigations.
In the steroids case, an investigation by BSO Sgt. Lisa McElhaney concluded the deputies likely engaged in criminal activities but prosecutors opted to allow BSO to handle the
matter “administratively,” as opposed to filing criminal charges.
“Our review of the close-out memos revealed a double standard of justice in Broward County – one for law enforcement and the connected and one for everyone else,” Finkelstein said in his complaint. “It is apparent that this same dual standard of justice was at play when the state failed to open a ‘formal’ review of the allegations contained in Sergeant McElhaney’s report.”
Finkelstein also says his office was never informed, as required, that those deputies were the targets of criminal investigations.
A 1963 U.S. States Supreme Court ruling known as the Brady Rule requires prosecutors to disclose and turn over to defense attorneys information that may be favorable to an accused person. This includes the arresting officers’ past disciplinary history and if they are the targets of any criminal investigations.
The complaint also states that the failure to issue Brady notices or prosecute law enforcement officers suspected of committing crimes amounted to a violation of the civil rights of defendants in criminal cases.
The Public Defender’s Office is filing motions seeking to dismiss or re-open hundreds of cases where the 26 deputies in question were witnesses.
Arguments in the first of those motions were heard before Broward Circuit Court Judge Martin Bidwell this week. It involved the arrest of Michael Wheels by one of the BSO deputies. Weekes is facing kidnapping, battery and assault charges related to a 2010 domestic dispute with his former girlfriend. Bidwell’s ruling is expected within the next month.