Thursday, August 27, 2009

Guilt By Association

It is incumbent upon me to point out this is an essay about the trial of Randy Acevedo, Superintendent Of Monroe County Schools, and if by some bizarre mischance a juror were to be browsing here it would be in accordance with Judge Jones' order to switch away and read something else, somewhere else.
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The bailiff came by to advise me it isn't okay to photograph jurors and I assured him that I was aware of that. As I was squinting into the camera I overheard the bailiff, a Sheriff's Deputy ask State Attorney Dennis ward if he knew who "he" was." No idea replied the county's chief prosecutor. Long my it stay that way sez I. I didn't enlighten him. After years of being a reporter I like the anonymity of just being a citizen in a public space. Let the buggers wonder who I am. The established reporters were setting up for Monroe County's Second Biggest Trial:
Jim DeFede is a Miami reporter who has a habit of pissing off his bosses and speaking truth to power in an old fashioned way. I stopped reading the Miami Herald when they fired him for illegally taping a phone call from a man who called to talk to him, and later killed himself in the newspaper's lobby as a way out of a scandal he was mired in. That got DeFede some attention which he could not survive and the Cuban hardliners in Miami were glad to see him forced out of the Herald because he never kow-towed to their rather anti-democratic, anti-Castro posturing. Apparently he's working for the CBS affiliate in Miami these days so I shan't get to see his take on this affair.
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The object of the trail is Randall Wade Acevedo Senior, known as Randy to most people in the community he grew up in. His wife, the former head of Adult Education in the Monroe County School District faces felony charges herself of embezzling some $300,000 from the District. Her forthcoming trial will be the Big Kahuna of trials in Monroe County I am sure, outshining her husband's appearance in court.
This trial in the new Freeman Justice Center's third floor court room is to decide three felony counts against Randy. He is accused of essentially covering up his wife's alleged theft and not putting the interest of the school district ahead of his own. There were probably a couple of dozen people in the court room all told, most, as far as I could tell supporters of the Superintendent on trial. I nodded to one woman I knew from outside the court but I didn't engage in conversation with anyone because to me this kind of atmosphere is far too pregnant for small talk, and careless talk in these places can affect trials. I sat silent in my corner and watched.
In Florida the chief prosecutor for the county is called the State Attorney (in California he would be the District Attorney, in Canada and Britain they are the Crown Prosecution Service, known as "the Crown" for short). I voted for Dennis Ward in the last election because I was fed up with Mark Kohl's inability to prosecute Sunshine Law violations. Florida has a rather draconian law that states anytime two or more officials from an elected body are together they must not discuss the public's business unless they are at a properly posted public meeting. Officials in Monroe County seem to violate this law all the time and Kohl did nothing about it. Dennis Ward is currently investigating two members of the school board for sunshine violations and I am interested to see if he is as good as his campaign promises. He's a Democrat so I know what you anti-Gummint nutters think of that already. I heard the indicted Steve Pribamsky and John Dick joke about their Sunshine Law prosecution at a recent School Board meeting so I hope Ward gives them a severe wake up call. Dennis Ward and a minion sat on "my"bench at the back of the court room. I was raised in the Catholic Church and we were trained to fill the pews from back. I don't know what his excuse was:Judge Jones presented himself well, all business and polite. I was friends with a California judge and I wondered out loud how she had the patience to sit through hours of talking. She laughed and said it was always interesting in one way or another. I guess for me, the pay would be the best thing about being a judge and that's no way to go to work. I'm glad somebody likes doing it.
I did not find the court room presence of the Assistant State Attorney Mark Wilson to be much to write home about. He has a baritone voice that should sound like Joshua's trumpet throughout the land but he mumbled and slurped in a most disconcerting way when he addressed the jury in his protracted and monotonous opening statement. His facts are going to have to be damning to secure a conviction because he won't do it on charm and personality alone.
The defense attorney is a fascinating case unto herself. Catherine Vogel claims almost three decades of experience in the court room and it showed as soon as she stood up to address the jury. She has command presence despite resembling a disheveled Julia Child, and she's the one I'd like to be able to afford to defend me when (or if) I get into trouble. She looked and sounded completely at home in her brief and informative opening statement. She is going to defend Randy, she said, based on the fact there was no intent to commit a felony. My wife the former public defender thought Vogel was going to go with reasonable doubt as a defense. "Interesting," she said when I told her what Vogel's strategy was going to be. Through it all sat Randy, the man I associate with being in charge when he came around my wife's classroom or appeared at any of numerous fund raisers around town. Here he is just a pawn as the lawyers do battle in front of him. Vogel did say she would call him as a witness, later. He put me in mind of the joke one hears around Key West, where dress codes are almost non existent.

Q: "what do you call a guy in a suit?"

A: "The defendant."

Trials in real life proceed slowly, not with the rapid fire delivery as presented on television. The fastest thing about this trial was the defense's refusal to seek to prolong the start date. My wife was sure there would be postponement but Vogel decided her best strategy was to force the prosecution to get on with it with no extra time to prepare. No continuation means this case could be in the hands of the jury by tomorrow.
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Wilson told the jury in his opening statement that Randy is not accused of stealing anything or embezzling. He pointed out the alleged theft will be the subject of what I am sure will be viewed as the trial of the decade in Key West, that of Randy's wife Monique who has been arrested and handcuffed and taken to jail twice in the investigation. The State Attorney isn't sparing that white collar, alleged criminal, any humiliation. Randy too has been cuffed in front of the newspaper's photographer but only once. Dennis Ward enjoyed the publicity hunkering down with the reporters and blabbing his office's strategy to anyone who would listen. Until a judge ordered him and his lawyer to shut about the case. My wife wondered why she had never had the opportunity to go up against an un-professional prosecutor like Ward, to which query there is no answer. Ward looks the part, all tall and gentlemanly with his few remaining strands swept back and pomaded to his skull:

Like any good scandal and the trial it engenders, this affair has lots of subtleties most observers don't care to observe. Vogel used to be the top Assistant State Attorney in the ancien regime of Mark Kohl. She either resigned in disgust, in the middle of the parking lot or was simply pushed out depending on who's story you prefer. So she's back in court with a vengeance here to whup Wilson's, and by extension his boss's ass. They don't look whupped- yet.

The prosecution's "star witness" according to Vogel is Kathy Reitzel the District's Finance Director who was the first person to note and report discrepancies in purchase card accounts from Superintendent Acevedo's wife Monique. Unaccountably the School Board is looking to get rid of her despite her whistle blowing, and some say it's because she only reported the fraud after last year's election, as though she delayed it as a deliberate political ploy to support Randy's re-election. A weird notion but as I know Kathy personally it's easy for me to support her as the upright and honest person I know her to be. None of this has been very easy for her.Her testimony yesterday morning was technical in nature, explaining to the prosecution how she noted some discrepancies amid myriad pieces of paper that came through her office. I had been working Tuesday night, the prosecutor was barely audible at the back of the court room and I eventually had to go home and take a nap. I left Kathy on the stand, sitting like a child surrounded by ogres in lawyerly garb:From time to time the lawyers turned from the witness to the judge to argue a point of law and when they went into a huddle it was a good time to sneak out and breathe the fresh air of freedom: Judge Jones has come under fire in the anonymous comments section of the newspaper. He expressed a hope publicly that both sides might reach agreement and settle out of court, which in the ears of some of the more rabid/cynical member of the public sounded like a judge throwing in the towel. As though he didn't have the stomach to see Randy go down, and was somehow secretly favoring the defendant. Such is the paranoia engendered by this trial. I can't imagine sitting up there, listening to endless hours of talk and then getting an earful in the paper on top of all that, and not being in a position to answer back.

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And yet people line up to become judges. I overheard a conversation in the corridor outside the men's room during a break, about one such person from the distant past. At the end of a line of photos of distinguished jurists from Monroe County history books I saw two older white men peering at a photo.
"The original Obama," one man said to the other, pointing to one particular photo. I checked after they left and it was Judge James Dean (no, really!) the first African American elected to the bench in a state of the former Confederacy during the period benignly known as "Reconstruction." He served from 1888 to 1890 in Key West.
Comparing him to the first African American President could have been some sort of a compliment, but it didn't sound like it. It's certainly not the tag that comes into my mind when looking at a picture of a 19th century black judge. From then till now Monroe County seems to have managed not to repeat the experiment and I saw only one African American clerk in the court, two or three jurors ( I couldn't see the jury very clearly) and there was not one black face among the public. Make of that what you will.
I hope the six person jury finds Randy not guilty, and I know many people in the community have already decided he is guilty of something, including and up to theft. I have no faith in the school board that is using this scandal to settle old political scores and not giving the district the leadership it needs. I say that not because I support the notion of theft obviously, but because I prefer crimes and misdemeanors not to be tainted by politics in their prosecution.
Not ready to wait for the judgment of his peers the School Board has already petitioned the Governor and the State Senate to impeach Randy and remove him from office. So far all he's guilty of is of being married to Monique. Strange justice to be guilty by association.