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.
The BSO also is paying Panza's firm as a liaison to supply information sought by the state attorney's office for its investigation.
- Satz has hired the daughter of Jenne's former law partner, William Scherer, as a prosecutor in the state attorney's office. While Jenne and Scherer are no longer partners, Scherer incorporated Jenne's private consulting businesses in 2002. Satz's office and the FDLE are investigating whether Jenne illegally used his public office along with his outside businesses to profit personally. Jenne hired Panza's law firm last summer because he was dissatisfied with the agency's own investigation of the case-clearance controversy and its disciplinary recommendations for about 40 deputies, said the BSO's chief spokeswoman, Cheryl Stopnick. She said Jenne chose Panza - who has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to both Republican and Democratic campaigns, including the sheriff's - because of his broad background in complex litigation, fraud audits and criminal justice.
The Herald requested the Panza law firm's invoices for its internal audit of BSO cases. The agency provided a breakdown of fees for October through February, which totaled $445,760.
But the BSO's legal department removed detailed information on Panza's invoices - citing public-records exemptions and attorney-client privilege - making it impossible to determine what his firm did to earn the money.
Panza said he sees no conflict of interest in his legal representation of Jenne's agency. He questioned why The Herald and other media focus on the pair's relationship after publishing stories and editorials on the BSO's need to fix systemic flaws.
"Yes, I'm friends with him. Yes, I was in the Army with him 30 years go. And yes, I've contributed to his campaigns, " Panza said. "I don't feel I'm any different from any other person who has done work for the government. I can make an honest call."
Panza took umbrage at the UM professor's criticism, saying he has "multiple assignments" for Jenne's agency: "I'm not interested in what a professor says at a UM ethics center. I have one client, the sheriff. There's no conflict of interest."
Panza said he won't release his report - including proposed reforms and disciplinary action - until the state attorney's office concludes its investigation. By that measure, the public will probably have to wait months for the results.
The state attorney's office launched its investigation into the BSO's alleged manipulation of crime statistics in October 2003. So far, three deputies have been charged.
Last year, the Broward County police union asked Satz to end the investigation and called on the governor to appoint an independent prosecutor because of what the union called conflicts of interest between the state attorney and the Broward sheriff. "I do not see how any fair-minded individual in your position, due to the broad scope of this investigation, would have any other choice, " Dick Brickman, president of the Police Benevolent Association, wrote to Satz on Sept. 9.
At that time, the state attorney's office said it did not see the need for an independent prosecutor.
CONFLICT NOT SEEN
"Investigating such allegations is one of a state attorney's responsibilities, " said Satz's spokesman, Ron Ishoy, in an e-mail to The Herald last year. "We did not see a conflict when this began and we do not see one now."
On Thursday, Ishoy stated in an e-mail to The Herald: "We stand by that statement. Nothing has changed."