Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne's agency is on track to pay upwards of $1 million to an outside lawyer with close ties to Jenne for an internal audit of questionable criminal cases.
Separately, the state attorney's office is investigating allegations that sheriff's deputies falsified clearances of thousands of unsolved cases, leading to charges against three employees after almost two years of evidence-gathering.
The parallel probes involve public figures with intimate histories - Jenne, Fort Lauderdale lawyer Tom Panza and State Attorney Michael Satz - that underscore possible conflicts of interest, according to several legal and ethics experts. Their relationships ultimately may undermine the public's confidence in the results of the costly probes, from criminal prosecutions to agency reforms, experts said.
"Should a special prosecutor be appointed to investigate the sheriff's office, and should Panza be conflicted out of the fraud audit?" said Tony Alfieri, director of the University of Miami School of Law's Center for Ethics & Public Service. "The answer to both is yes."
"The larger issue goes to the public appearance of a compromised investigation because of Panza's historical ties to the sheriff's office, whether they are personal or professional, " Alfieri said. "The suspicion is that any [Broward Sheriff's Office] audit result will be a whitewash."
Perhaps to avoid that perception in a separate BSO scandal, Gov. Jeb Bush directed the Florida Department of Law Enforcement last month to launch an independent investigation into Jenne's private business dealings - just days after the state attorney's office began to look into his moonlighting as a security consultant.
Jenne, Panza and Satz say they have no conflicts.
Here are some of their connections:
- The BSO has already paid Panza's law firm about $450,000 in legal fees from October through February to review 10,000 cases in which crimes may have been wrongfully cleared by deputies and their supervisors. The case audit - as well as the Panza firm's evaluation of BSO disciplinary actions pending against dozens of deputies - is about half done.
While his firm is searching for BSO case fraud, Panza is defending the sheriff and his agency against lawsuits filed by two men who served years in prison but were exonerated based on genetic evidence. Depending on the outcome of the BSO audit, information could help or hinder the two men who are suing the agency.
The audit information could affect the racketeering-type suits because they accuse the sheriff and his predecessors of pervasive misconduct in the agency.
One of those BSO lawsuits has already compelled Satz's office to raise questions about a state circuit judge's ability to rule impartially on criminal cases involving the BSO. The judge's wife is representing one of the exonerated men.
- Panza's firm also has been hired to represent a BSO vendor, Armor Correctional Health Services, in disputes with jail inmates. Armor was awarded a $127 million contract last fall to provide healthcare at county jails.
The state attorney's office briefly looked at how Armor won the contract, partly because the newly formed company had no experience providing such services and its chairman was a major contributor to Jenne's 2004 re-election campaign.
- Satz's office normally prosecutes criminal cases investigated by Jenne's agency. Now, his prosecutors are probing allegations that BSO deputies falsified crime records amid pressure by their supervisors and commanders.