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High-profile names on secret-cases list

A former presidential speechwriter who helped Gov. Jeb Bush develop Florida's charter schools program, a founding partner in a prominent Miami law firm and even a Pompano Beach man who was detained in the post-9/11 dragnet - each has a court case on Broward's secret docket.

The South Broward Hospital District and Fort Lauderdale's Holy Cross Hospital also are defendants in cases whose allegations and outcomes are unknown.

Those files are among more than 100 civil cases since 2001 that have not been on any public records in Broward. The Miami Herald obtained a list of case numbers and party names Monday under court order, after suing.

Keeping cases off the public docket goes against the basic tenet that courts should be open to the public. What's more, the high-profile names on the list raise the question of whether some people get special treatment.

One of the cases involves Jonathan Hage, who wrote speeches for the first President Bush and in 1997 co-founded Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA with Sherry Ryan. In 2003, the list shows, Ryan sued Hage. Why Ryan sued, and the outcome of the case, are not known.

Another involved a lawyer with Broward's biggest law firm, Ruden McClosky, who defended against unspecified accusations made by a woman identified as Jane Doe. A lawyer for Bruce D. Goorland, a Ruden McClosky partner, declined to comment.

SAUDI NATIVE

One family court case involved a Pompano Beach resident arrested by federal agents shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks.Saudi native Mohammad Binhasher was taking flight lessons in early 2001 when he sued his girlfriend, Melissa Hardee, in family court in 2001, seeking paternity rights for their then year-old daughter.

He later was arrested under his full name, Muhammed Nasir Bin Hasher Alghamdi, and charged with the illegal possession of steroids and having a fraudulent passport. Binhasher pleaded guilty, served six months in prison and was deported, according to his attorney.

Nearly half the cases in fact are divorces in family court, including those of retired Broward Circuit Judge Julie Koenig and former state Rep. Mark Weissman, D-Parkland.

Among the others: The 2001 divorce case of Steven I. Peretz, co-founder of business litigation firm Kluger Peretz Kaplan and Berlin, and wife Kori. Peretz said he requested the case be sealed, but not kept off the public docket.

And the 2003 divorce of a former Pembroke Pines pastor. The Rev. John Wagner sued to end his 18-year marriage to wife Margie four days after admitting to an extramarital affair and resigning from his church in disgrace.

Other cases kept off the public docket include the 2002 family court actions brought by former assistant Broward State Attorney Leah Mayersohn against defendant Peter Siegel and former federal prosecutor Carol DeGraffenreidt-Willis against Harry Lee Willis Jr.

NOT AUTHORIZED

Sealing cases is legally permitted under certain circumstances, but no state law authorizes judges to remove cases from the public document. A federal appeals court with authority over Florida has said the practice is unconstitutional.

It's not clear why all these cases were taken off the docket.

Broward Clerk of Courts Howard Forman has said his office removes cases from the public docket only when ordered to do so by judges.

Broward Chief Judge Dale Ross has said some clerks may have misinterpreted orders and wrongly removed cases from the public docket.

Although the list of cases was released to The Miami Herald, the cases won't be restored to the public docket, a spokesman for Forman said.

The newspaper is reviewing further action. "The Miami Herald didn't file suit for the purpose of obtaining exclusive access to the secret docket, " said Miami Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler. "Our aim has been, and remains, to act on behalf of the public in guaranteeing the right of access to all civil findings. We will continue to pursue that goal in whatever ways are necessary until we succeed."

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