Jose Lambiet

Disgraced ex-state lawmaker accused of sexual harassment — 17 years after scandal

Catherine Benjamin, 43, has filed police, state attorney and bar association complaints against lawyer and former state Rep. Steve Effman, alleging he touched her inappropriately. Effman says he didn’t do it.
Catherine Benjamin, 43, has filed police, state attorney and bar association complaints against lawyer and former state Rep. Steve Effman, alleging he touched her inappropriately. Effman says he didn’t do it. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

Divorce lawyer Steve Effman’s admission in 2000 that he had sex with vulnerable female clients who couldn’t pay him with money cost him his high-profile job, his seat at the Florida House of Representatives and, temporarily, his law license.

Since then, the former mayor of Sunrise, who is married to high-profile Democratic Party operative Barbara Effman, has managed to rebuild a successful solo practice in Plantation.

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Former state Rep. Steve Effman, D-Plantation. Miami Herald File

If you believe a recent law client, however, the retired politician’s old demons are popping back up.

Mom of three Catherine Benjamin, 43, has filed police, state attorney and bar association complaints against Effman alleging that, on a Sunday last November, she was in Effman’s office to pick up paperwork pertaining to her contentious divorce when Effman touched her inappropriately

Effman says he didn’t do it, and Benjamin was just trying to get out of paying him.

Court records indeed show that Effman represented Benjamin during a part of her divorce case. But when she dismissed him because she couldn’t come up with the $10,000-retainer for her upcoming custody trial, she asked for her file back. He asked her to go to his office on a Sunday afternoon.

Once inside, she says, things went awry.

“I told him I was all stressed out and he started talking about how sex would be good for me and whether I have sex often with my boyfriend,” Benjamin claims. “When I turned to walk away, he started massaging my shoulders and suddenly slipped his hand under my tank top and bra. And he just grabbed my boobs.

“I just walked away fast and when I tried to open the door of his office, it was locked. I got really scared but he opened it and I walked out.”

Because she didn’t have money to hire anyone else, Benjamin said, she kept the lines of communication with Effman open and didn’t file complaints immediately. He continued giving her small pointers to help her navigate the December 2016 trial — and she won joint custody of the children.

Earlier this year, records show, Effman started filing motion after motion with the court to get paid for work he’d done on the case earlier.

He was owed $3,600, he claimed. Benjamin paid him in August under the threat of two weeks in jail.

Benjamin, Effman says, was trying to take advantage of his history to weasel out of paying him.

“Her allegations are completely false,” Effman said. “And they’re made to my insistence that I get paid. I continued to give her advice despite the fact for free in a courteous, professional manner. I’m aware she filed a police report and took certain actions because she is clearly upset.”

Benjamin’s story, however, is strangely familiar to what happened with Effman in 2000, when Effman’s downfall was precipitated by the news his then-law firm made a secret $470,000 payment to a woman he represented in a custody battle.

That woman was facing the loss of her children to state custody because of drug abuse, and she was also unable to pay Effman. According to news archives, the woman said she freely agreed to have sex with Effman in exchange for his not charging for legal fees — and she got pregnant.

Effman had her abort the baby — then charged her some money and lost the case.

Effman resigned from the law firm he owned in partnership with other lawyers and his state House seat.

In 2003, he admitted to violating Florida Bar rules by having sex with three women made vulnerable at the prospect of losing husbands and children.

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