UPDATE: Facebook was weapon in nasty PBC judicial race

UPDATE: The “Truth About Gregg Lerman” Facebook page was taken down Friday. Richard Giorgio, Dana Santino’s political consultant, said in an email, “Several defense attorneys who are supporting Dana Santino contacted the campaign.  They felt the Facebook page “The Truth About Gregg Lerman” could be viewed as a commentary on all defense attorneys.  In deference to them, the page has been taken down.”

A Palm Beach County judicial candidate is using Facebook to blast her opponent as unfit because he works as a criminal defense attorney.

In a Facebook page titled, The Truth About Gregg Lerman, a political committee operated by Dana Santino’s campaign consultant attacks Lerman “for trying to free Palm Beach County’s worst criminals!”

lermanfb2The page, that offers links to newspaper stories about several high-profile cases Lerman has handled, underscores further how little Santino understands about the criminal justice system or what criminal defense attorneys do, Lerman said.

“A criminal defense attorney works to preserve the system and make sure it works,” said Lerman. He is challenging Santino in the Nov. 8 election for a seat on the county court bench, where misdemeanor cases and civil matters, worth less than $15,000, are decided.

A few newspaper stories don’t begin to tell the story of his 31-year career or the job of a criminal defense attorney, Lerman said. The job involves more than appearing in court. It often involves trying to get people help with demons, such as drug addiction, to keep them from committing crimes. It also involves protecting clients from overzealous prosecutors and making sure the punishment fits the crime.

He said he suspects Santino, who in an email to would-be supporters last week said Lerman represents “murderers, rapists, child molesters and other criminals,” has stepped over a line. Unlike those seeking other elected positions, judicial candidates are constrained by judicial canons and can face sanctions for violating them.

Richard Giorgio, Santino’s political consultant, said Santino is on firm legal ground. “We’ve looked at the canons,” said Giorgio, who administers Taxpayers for Public Integrity which created the website for Santino.

“Candidates are allowed to draw clear, honest, factual differences with their opponents,” he said. “There’s nothing misleading. One candidate focused her career on defending victims and one focuses his on defending perpetrators of crime.”

Santino, who works as a guardianship and probate attorney, worked as a victim’s advocate from 1993-94, according to her campaign brochure. Giorgio said she still represents victims of crime.

Lerman said he does, too. He said he and those close to him have been victims of crime. He said he understands both sides. “It’s aggravating because she doesn’t know me or what I do,” he said.

Santino, he said, is violating judicial candidates by misrepresenting his credentials and questioning the validity of the type of law he practices. “You can’t attack someone personally based on what they do and infer they can’t be fair and impartial,” he said. “That’s exactly what they claim.”

He said he intends to seek an opinion from a campaign ethics committee of the Palm Beach County Bar Association and file a complaint against Santino with the Florida Bar.

Giorgio indicated he isn’t worried. “He doesn’t represent these people because he champions constitutional principles. He’s doing it because he make a lot of money doing it,” Giorgio said.

Lerman accepts court appointments to represent people charged with murder. Most agree it is far from lucrative.

But, he said, he does it because he respects the criminal justice system and takes his responsibilities as a lawyer seriously. “I raised my hand 31 years ago to uphold the Constitution of the state of Florida and the Constitution of the United States,” he said.


PBC court race gets ugly – some say – in Donald Trump-like way

A Palm Beach County judicial candidate’s claim that her opponent’s legal chops are questionable because he represents “murderers, rapists, child molesters and other criminals” has inflamed criminal defense attorneys and raised concerns that Donald Trump tactics are being used in a county court race.

Gregg Lerman
Gregg Lerman

Comments Dana Santino made in an email last week about her opponent, Gregg Lerman, raise questions about her understanding of the U.S. Constitution which guarantees that anyone charged with a crime has the right to have an attorney represent them, attorneys said.

In a statement on Sunday, the president of the Palm Beach Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers made it clear the group isn’t backing either candidate in the nonpartisan race.

Dana Santino
Dana Santino

“However, we do support the Constitution of the United States,” wrote Christine Geraghty, an assistant public defender.  “Every lawyer in Florida takes an oath to uphold the Constitution.  Anyone who believes that there is something wrong with a lawyer upholding the ethical duty we have to our clients, to the Constitution, and to the rules of the Florida Bar does not understand how the legal system is supposed to work.”

Santino, a Palm Beach Gardens probate and guardianship attorney who worked as an intern in both the public defender’s and state attorney’s offices while she was in law school, said she understands the system.

“I completely respect and I’m proud of our justice system and while every person is entitled to a defense, Mr. Lerman is not a public defender and chooses to represent individuals who commit heinous crimes,” she said in a statement.

Lerman, a criminal defense attorney, said Santino’s description of his clients indicates she doesn’t understand another important Constitutional concept: innocent until proven guilty.

Further, he said in most cases he is appointed by judges to represent poor people accused of murder. Court-appointed attorneys are needed when the public defender’s office is unable to do so either because it is already representing a co-defendant or its workload doesn’t allow it.

Without private attorneys willing to accept such cases, the system would collapse, said Val Rodriguez, a private attorney who handles both criminal and civil cases and is supporting Lerman. “He’s performing a public service,” he said.

He said he was “flabbergasted” by Santino’s comments. “It’s so elementary. That’s why it’s so shocking,” he said. “It’s the first thing you learn in law school – to treat all parties with respect. You don’t call people criminals, especially if you’re a judge.”

Santino and Lerman are vying for a seat on the county court bench where misdemeanor cases and civil matters where less than $15,000 is at stake are decided.

Rodriguez likened Santino’s comments to criticism Trump leveled at Hillary Clinton during last week’s debate. The GOP presidential candidate accused Clinton of getting a man accused of raping a 12-year-old off and then laughing at the victim.

Early in her career, Clinton was appointed to represent the man, who ultimately took a plea deal. But, fact-checkers at the Associated Press said there is no evidence Clinton laughed at the victim when interviewed about the case years later.

Rodriguez said Santino is trying to tar Lerman with the same ugly brush. “She’s riding the coattails of these crazy Trump supporters,” Rodriguez said of Santino.

Santino said she is simply underscoring the differences between herself and Lerman. “I have spent part of my career and much of my life helping and advocating for victims of rape, homicide and domestic violence,” she wrote. “Those are simply the facts.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Clinton worked as an assistant public defender. She didn’t. She was appointed to represent the man in the rape case.


Fight begins over whether local judge seat should be elected or appointed

Gregg Lerman
Gregg Lerman

A local defense attorney on Tuesday made official what is shaping up to be a Florida Supreme Court fight over whether Florida Gov. Rick Scott has the power to appoint someone to a judicial seat some believe should be up for a public vote in the August election.

Gregg Lerman has filed suit filed against Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner for starting the judicial vacancy appointment process for County Judge Laura Johnson’s seat, which she resigned to run for a circuit judge seat.

Lerman, and County Magistrate Thomas Baker have since filed paperwork to run for Johnson’s seat, and Palm Beach County Supervisior of Elections Susan Bucher has recognized the position as elected. Detzner later sent Bucher a letter telling her not to accept the candidates’ papwerwork to qualify for the position because Scott has already started the customary process of accepting applications to appoint Johnson’s replacement.

Thomas BakerBut Lerman and others say Scott doesn’t have that right by law, saying Johnson’s April 18 resignation letter complied with a state statute requiring some elected officials to resign their current positions to run for another. It is that law, according to Lerman’s attorney Len Feuer, that makes Johnson’s seat and elected position and not subject to a governor’s usual right to fill judicial vacancies due to resignation and retirement.

“The public’s right to choose who should fill the seat in Group 11 through an election should not be abridged by the Governor’s attempt to fill the same position through an appointment,” Feuer wrote.

Lerman is asking that the high court compel Scott and Detzner to provide legal reason to show by what authority Scott feels he has the power to appoint Johnson’s replacement.

Battling brewing in Grossman v. Bryson PBC county court race

In what could be a harbinger of a particularly contentious judicial election season, the Palm Beach County Bar Association has already logged its first ethics complaint against a candidate.

A supporter of incumbent Judge Marni Bryson (above) has filed a complaint against challenger Lisa Grossman.

“We’ve never had a complaint filed this early before,” bar association CEO Patience Burns said of the complaint filed last week against county court judge candidate Lisa Grossman. “We’re not prepared to accept it.”

The Judicial Campaign Practices Commission, which reviews complaints of unethical behavior and issues advisory opinions, won’t be formed until after the election qualifying period ends at noon on May 6, Burns said.

That means the complaint, accusing Grossman of improperly converting her personal Facebook page into a campaign advertisement and dragging her nearly 300 “friends” along for an unplanned political ride, will be put on hold, she said.

Attorney Alka Sharma, co-chair of the campaign committee for incumbent Judge Marni Bryson,  said several people called her upset that Grossman was using their Facebook friendship to shore up her judicial campaign. Some of those “friends” are supporting Bryson in the Aug. 30 election, she said.

The page titled, “Lisa Grossman for Judge,” shows pictures of people holding Grossman campaign signs. Before the March 15 presidential primary, the North Palm Beach lawyer posted this: “Anyone interested in holding a sign at an early voting site between 10-6 this weekend please contact me!!”

Sharma said her research showed that the converting a personal Facebook page into one for a campaign is improper under rules that dictate what is and isn’t allowed in Florida judicial races. While such sites can be created by an election committee, they can’t be established or maintained by the candidate themselves, she wrote in the complaint. Even then, she said, the committees can’t control who counts themselves among the candidates’ supporters.

The rules for judicial candidates differ wildly from those seeking other offices. Grossman should bone up on them, Sharma said. “She seems to be kind of doing it Wild West style,” she said.

Gross declined comment. “At this point it’s all unsubstantiated hearsay,” she said.