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Broward Sheriff Questions Law Firm's Audit

  Law Firm News  -   POSTED: 2008/01/06 10:30

The Broward Sheriff's Office paid more than $1.3 million to a law firm with close ties to ex-sheriff Ken Jenne to do an audit of the agency's mishandling of its crime statistics -- but the firm never submitted a final report because BSO never asked for one.

Fort Lauderdale attorney Tom Panza's work over three years appears to duplicate much of the internal and outside reviews done by the FBI, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, a Tallahassee academic group and BSO itself, according to sheriff's office officials.

The Broward state attorney's office launched a probe in October 2003 into allegations that BSO deputies manipulated crime statistics, in part by doctoring its numbers through the use of ''exceptional clearances.'' An exceptional clearance is when a crime is deemed solved despite the lack of an arrest.

Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti, who replaced Jenne after he pleaded guilty to public corruption charges in September, questioned whether the agency gained anything from Panza's work.

''He was paid a lot of money and BSO employees did most of the work,'' Lamberti said.

A team of sheriff's deputies reviewed clearance reports from several BSO districts and recorded their findings for Panza's firm to analyze, Lamberti said.

Panza, a personal friend of Jenne's, initially was hired to conduct a review of more than 10,000 criminal cases cleared by BSO deputies between 2001 and 2003. Panza's law firm was also retained to review the agency's recommended discipline for some 40 BSO deputies and to handle subpoena requests by the state attorney's office.

Panza's firm did exactly what Jenne requested, said Ed Dion, BSO's former general counsel, who left his post in October. The firm made many contributions, such as creating protocols for deputies to follow while probing the clearances, he said.

''His firm showed the deputies what to look for during their investigation,'' Dion said. ``Ken Jenne wanted an independent review and he wanted to find out where the problems were and how high up they went.''

Panza, whose law firm has performed audits for healthcare and other companies, strongly disagreed with Lamberti's assessment of his work.

''We were never charged with writing their policy and procedures [manual],'' Panza said. ``We were charged with determining they were deficient.''

Jenne, who is now serving a one-year prison term unconnected to the crime statistics probe, authorized the hiring of Panza's firm in the fall of 2004, when his agency was under a cloud of suspicion. There was no letter of retention that spelled out the scope of the work -- including goals, timetable and final audit.

When public agencies hire outside consultants to review a problem area, audits are routinely produced with recommended solutions. Indeed, a few months before hiring Panza, BSO paid about $100,000 to the nonpartisan Collins Center for Public Policy at Florida State University for a report on the agency's flawed crime reporting, which led to sweeping reforms.

Tony Alfieri, director of the University of Miami School of Law's Center for Ethics & Public Service, said ''the better practice'' would have been for BSO to establish a ''clearer scope'' of work with Panza's law firm at the beginning.

''The vagueness of the representation . . . casts doubt on the reasonableness of the hours billed,'' Alfieri said.

He suggested an ''independent review of the history of this relationship'' to determine whether Panza's firm should reimburse any money to BSO.

`NOT EXCESSIVE'

Panza sharply contested that view of his total billable hours and fees, which ranged from $125 to $250 an hour. ''They were not excessive,'' he said.

In the end, Panza said, his firm did not write up the final audit, even though he told The Miami Herald in spring 2005 that he would do so after the state attorney's office completed its criminal investigations.

Dion told The Miami Herald a final report wasn't needed.

''We didn't need a final report because Panza was sharing his findings with me and the sheriff,'' Dion explained.

Panza's law partner, Susan Maurer, who coordinated the firm's computer analyses of BSO's cleared cases, said they did a ''credible job'' that led to lasting reforms in the agency's policy and procedures manual.

But BSO officials say many of those reforms -- including suspending the use of a controversial database tool called Powertrac that pinpointed crime patterns -- had already been implemented by the sheriff's office by early 2005 amid harsh criticism of BSO's case clearance policy.

While BSO officials said Panza's work was helpful, the agency based much of its revised policy and procedures manual on recommendations by the Collins Center, the independent academic group.

''Nearly all of the information we used in our new law enforcement manual that I worked on in 2005 and 2006 came from the recommendations in the Collins Center report,'' BSO Maj. John Carroll said, including training for detectives in preparing clearance reports.

Patricia Windowmaker, BSO's compliance officer who worked on the policy manuals, agreed with Carroll.

She said that while Panza's work was ''helpful in some aspects,'' including creating an audit tool for detectives to use for investigative check lists, it was the BSO team that identified the questionable cases and deputies for internal affairs review.

''The team had to weed through all the clearances. We ended up sending 100 cases to internal affairs and as a result of the investigative team, BSO's internal affairs division opened 57 administrative cases involving 61 deputies,'' she said.

REPORT NOT FINAL

Windowmaker's report on the case clearances, policy reforms and disciplinary action meted out to deputies will be finalized when the state attorney's investigation is officially closed.

The report, now in a draft form, reached this conclusion: Windowmaker said that eight deputies found to have violated BSO policy were terminated, 19 deputies received suspensions and two received written reprimands.

In the criminal investigation, the state attorney charged six sheriff's deputies -- five of them from Weston -- with official misconduct and other offenses. Two of them pleaded guilty to lesser charges, one was acquitted and charges were dismissed against a fourth. Only one is awaiting trial.

Panza's law firm sent associates from his firm to sit in on all court proceedings involving the state attorney's case against BSO at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars.

Windowmaker said Panza's team did help with coordinating the turnover of agency records to the state attorney's office in connection with the criminal probe after relations became strained between BSO and the state attorney's office.

Windowmaker, a lawyer, said she was skeptical at first about an outsider, Panza's firm, handling the BSO subpoenas because the agency routinely did that work.

But she said the task grew so ''expansive'' that ''it was helpful having someone on the inside and someone on the outside'' dealing with some 900 subpoenas for more than one million records and e-mails.

''Tom Panza acted like a go-between, a buffer,'' she said.

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