Riding a wave of public outrage over teenage prostitution — and the sudden flood of cash to agencies poised to treat the victims — Linda Sullivan created Building Empowerment by Stopping Trafficking, or BEST, earlier this year in an effort to place Miami “center stage” in the fight against human trafficking.
Less than a year old, BEST has a handful of government and private grants and awards, including a subcontractor slice of a $908,758 government grant to work with survivors of sex trafficking in the Southeast, and an agreement to publish a sex-trafficking guide for the American Bar Association. The group trained Broward County caseworkers at an event sponsored Oct. 4 by the advocacy group Florida’s Children First.
But after pitching her program to judges, prosecutors and social service administrators across the state, Sullivan has struggled to win converts.
The leader of one girls’ shelter said that BEST representatives instructed her not to call the state’s abuse hotline when she came in contact with girls forced into prostitution.
State child welfare bosses have complained that they have been unable to pin down Sullivan, a certified public accountant before she registered BEST, when asked for specifics about her program, which seeks to work with children who have experienced extreme sexual and emotional trauma.
“Before we allow this group to go near our vulnerable children,” the Florida Department of Children & Families’ Miami managing director, Esther Jacobo, wrote in an internal email, “we must have more information.”
Sullivan contends she has become a victim of sorts herself. An older, more-established sex assault treatment center has mounted an organized smear campaign, she says, painting her as unqualified and flaky.
“Ms. Sullivan and supporters of BEST believe that no one should have a monopoly in this area,” her lawyer, Victoria Brieant, wrote in a letter to The Miami Herald.
But a review of hundreds of pages of public records shows that Sullivan has been at the center of controversy before.
Working under an earlier surname, Walden, Sullivan was appointed a trustee in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case in the summer of 2003. Within days, the debtor in the case, James F. Walker, objected to Sullivan’s appointment, claiming she had a significant professional relationship with one of the case’s largest creditors.
After a lengthy hearing on the dispute, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Paul G. Hyman Jr. removed her from the case in December 2004, writing she had “committed numerous acts of fraud upon this court by consistently lying under oath, and thereby perjuring herself, throughout this trial.”
Hyman’s order was upheld by a federal judge, and a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed her removal in January 2008.
Almost eight years after Hyman’s order, Sullivan’s lawyer, Brieant, says Sullivan told the truth.
“A close review of the facts absolutely dictates the conclusion that Ms. Sullivan engaged in no misconduct, including no factual misrepresentations,” Brieant wrote in a letter to The Miami Herald. “Based on what really happened in the Walker bankruptcy matter, Ms. Sullivan believes there is no cause for concern over her leadership of a charitable organization, especially in regard to its finances.”