Judges and prosecutors in Miami-Dade have had official court records altered and kept secret dockets to disguise what was actually happening in some court cases.
The Miami Herald has found two criminal cases where court dockets were changed to cover up felony convictions. In both cases, the defendants were informants for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office.
But more bogus records apparently exist. Jose Arrojo, a top assistant to Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle, said judges' altering public records in informant cases at prosecutors' request has been "an established practice in this circuit" for two decades.
Florida law makes it a crime for anyone - including judges, clerks or "other public officers" - to alter or falsify court records or proceedings. Offenders can be sent to prison for a year.
A spokeswoman for Miami-Dade Chief Judge Joseph Farina said Friday that Farina was unaware of the practice.
"Chief Judge Farina is not aware of any judge altering or falsifying any court record in violation" of state law, spokeswoman Eunice Sigler said.
Experienced jurists were surprised to learn dockets had been doctored.
"Creating a false record to allow somebody to work undercover. That's shocking, " said Miami First Amendment lawyer Thomas Julin.
"I've never heard of such a thing, " said ex-Florida Chief Justice Gerald Kogan, a former criminal court judge and prosecutor in Miami-Dade.
Miami-Dade prosecutors argue that court rules that exempt some sensitive records from public disclosure also authorize judges to misrepresent the public record to protect informants. But no rule explicitly gives judges power to order the creation of a false court record.
"It all sounds so Machiavellian, " said Julin. "I think you've uncovered the commission of a crime here."
Evidence of Miami-Dade's docket being used as a kind of witness protection program comes amid an inquiry by Florida's chief justice into the improper hiding of court records across the state.
The probe followed reports in The Miami Herald about the veiling of hundreds of civil and criminal cases, mostly in Broward. Many such "super-sealed" cases were the divorces of politicians, judges, lawyers and high-profile businessmen - warping the public record and raising questions of favoritism.
Those cases have since been restored to the docket, but most remain sealed as the court system studies proposed public access rules.
In Miami-Dade last month, Farina informed Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis that a clerk's search of nearly two million cases dating to 1993 found no "hidden cases" or "secret dockets." A dozen civil cases - including at least one judge's divorce - were found to be largely inaccessible to the public because litigants' names were hidden.
A secret docket was used to mask events in the case of Salim "Johnny" Batrony, who cooperated with state prosecutors after he was caught laundering drug money in 2001.
Court Clerk Harvey Ruvin said he learned from Arrojo only this week that court records were being altered. "He called and assured me it was totally proper, " Ruvin said. Ruvin pledged to look into the practice, and take action if needed.
For four years, until a reporter started asking questions, Miami-Dade's electronic court docket for the case said charges against Batrony had been dropped in 2002, and that Judge Daryl Trawick had closed the case.
But that wasn't true.
Records in a related federal case - where Batrony's informant status is a matter of record - show he pleaded guilty in 2002 to money laundering in the state case.
Batrony's lawyer said the clerk's office altered the public docket at the direction of Judge Trawick and assistant state attorney Michael Smith to protect Batrony and allow him to work undercover by making it appear he had beaten the state charges.
"They phonied up the docket and made it look like his charges were dismissed, " said defense lawyer Paul Petruzzi. "They kept a secret docket on the side showing everything that was actually going on."
Petruzzi said he went along with the charade. "You do it to protect your client, " he said.
Trawick, now assigned to the civil court bench, referred a request for comment to court spokeswoman Sigler. She said court administrators want to review the Batrony case before further comment.
Arrojo, chief assistant state attorney for special prosecutions, said his office believes state laws that exempt some sensitive records from public disclosure also allow judges to authorize what was done with the docket in Batrony's case.
He said he did not believe that "there's been a falsification of the public record."
"This is an established practice in this circuit for many, many years and we are comfortable that the rules of judicial administration allows for this, " he said.
He said, too, that such acts are intended to be temporary.
Veteran Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyer David Vinikoor, a former chief of the Broward state attorney's organized crime unit, said he's never heard of dockets being altered to protect informants.
"I'm trying to think of a reason why they would do that. . . . It's obviously a fraudulent act, " said Vinikoor, who has worked in Miami-Dade.
"There are statutes that allow judges to seal records and there are statutes that allow judges to expunge records, but I'm unaware of any statute that allows judges to alter records falsely, " he said.
Altering records to create "false impressions about whether somebody has pleaded guilty to a crime" undermines the credibility of the public record that people rely on for truthful information, said attorney Julin.
"Public records are for the public, not for providing cover for informants, " he said.
In Batrony's case, his court file was as elusive as his true docket. Two file clerks said there was no such file. A third, who called it "the mystery case, " produced two sheets of custody papers describing state plans to bring Batrony to trial. Those papers were filed May 30, 2006, four years after Batrony pleaded guilty.
Batrony's case docket has continued to shape-shift. After a reporter's recent inquiry, electronic entries from April 17, 2002 stating that his criminal charges were "nolle pros, " or dropped, were deleted.
On Oct. 11, Batrony was sentenced to 66 months - the same sentence he drew last year in federal court. He's serving both at the same time in federal custody.
Reports of such false dockets are rare. In 1989, federal prosecutors in Miami created fictitious court cases and used them to go after corrupt state court judges in Operation Court Broom. Before they did, though, Florida's chief justice and the U.S. attorney general personally approved the plan.
A docket also was altered in the attempted murder and kidnapping case of another of Petruzzi's clients, Michael Scott Segal. Segal was arrested in 2001 for stuffing his girlfriend into the trunk of a car and trying to drive it into a lake. Later, he pleaded guilty and became a snitch in a police investigation of corruption at the county's Turner Guilford Knight jail.
Segal entered his guilty plea at an unusual, secret hearing at a Miami-Dade police station on May 13, 2003. But you wouldn't know it from the docket. The plea, taken by Judge Victoria Sigler, wasn't docketed. Petruzzi said the docket was altered to indicate that a trial was pending.
"We kept getting computerized notices of trial after he'd already pled, " he said.
Segal's case surfaced in the news for a day in April 2004 - including mention of a brewing scandal at the jail - after Petruzzi filed court papers seeking a better deal from prosecutors.
In his motion, Petruzzi said that "at the state's request" Segal's plea hearing was kept secret "and the docket sheet altered to make it appear as though Mr. Segal's trial remained pending."
But the jail investigation fizzled, as did another tip from Segal about an unsolved 1986 murder, said state attorney's spokesman Ed Griffith. So Segal got no further reduction.
Judge Sigler said she couldn't recall if she authorized altering the docket in Segal's case or any other. "Without the file and paperwork in front of me, it would be difficult for me to answer that, " she said.
The number of Miami-Dade cases with bogus docket entries isn't known. But Arrojo expects the public will have a say on future policy.
"If you expect your government to engage in proactive investigations while protecting the lives of cooperating witnesses . . . certain materials are going to have to be kept from public view."