UPDATED: Judge Gardiner Awarded Future Employer $600,000 in Legal Fees
Embattled Broward Circuit Judge Ana Gardiner awarded Richard Cole, the attorney who recently hired her, some $600,000 in legal fees last summer, according to court documents.
"I never saw or spoke to Judge Gardiner from the day of the result of the trial until very recently," said Cole. "I just happened to be in front of her as a judge. I didn't know her socially."
The civil case involved the sale of a Fort Lauderdale house by plaintiffs Suzanne Coleman and Julia Bengough and allegations that a Re/Max realtor named Keith Webster concealed information to favor one prospective buyer, builder William Bentz, over another. Cole represented Re/Max in the case.
Gardiner took over the case, which was initially filed in 2003, from retiring Judge Barry Goldstein, whom Coleman said had a solid grasp of the issues and had already ruled that she could seek punitive damages against the defendants.
Coleman said she immediately had concerns about Gardiner, who had been transferred to the civil division from her job as chief criminal judge after the ex parte allegations were published.
Coleman, a political activist and past president of the local chapter of the National Women's Political Caucus, said she voiced her concerns to her attorney, Jarrett Cooper of the Tripp Scott law firm.
"I said, 'I don't think she should be on this case,'" said Coleman. "I sent [Cooper] your [New Times] articles, and I said there's an investigation and she doesn't know
civil procedure at all. After five years of battling, I didn't know if I want it to be in her hands."
Coleman said that Cooper told her not to worry about it. But when the trial started in September 2008, she said her fears were realized. During the case, which involved complicated real estate law, Gardiner repeatedly deferred to her opponent, Cole, as an authority on legal matters, she said.
"[Gardiner] and Richard Cole were quite cozy during the two-week trial," Coleman told me. "It was surprising ot me that she asked him to explain certain procedures. She looked at him as a resource during the trial, and I didn't think that was a good sign. Her demeanor was pretty cavalier during the course of the trial, and it made me uncomfortable."
Cole acknowledged that he helped Gardiner on matters of law and procedures.
Coleman says that while Gardiner seemed to rely on Cole, the judge openly "flirted" with another lawyer in the case, Matthew Kotzen, who was representing Webster. Cole later hired Kotzen at his law firm.
"She flirted with [Kotzen], but her behavior is very flirtatious anyway," Coleman said of Gardiner. "She jokes around; she's coy and overly familiar with lawyers in her courtroom."
Coleman said that during the trial, Cole grilled both her and co-plaintiff, Julia Bengough, on the stand while Webster never had to testify. "It was very similar to a rape case where the defense goes on the offense to victimize the victims again by impugning their character and motives," Coleman said.
A jury ruled against Coleman and Bengough, and Judge Gardiner later denied Coleman's motion for a directed verdict and new trial without a hearing. In June 2009, Gardiner approved $354,958.11 in legal fees to Cole to be paid by Coleman and another quarter million dollars for Bengough to pay.
Coleman said she doesn't have the money to pay those fees. Meanwhile, she's being fined 8 percent interest on the order, which amounts to $77 a day. So the judgment has already grown to $380,000.
Coleman just learned that at the same time that Tripp Scott was representing her in that case, Cole was representing Tripp Scott in a malpractice case. "I think they should have at least notified me of that," said Coleman. "I'm beginning to feel like everybody was in bed together except me."
Cooper didn't return a call for comment.
"It's not a conflict for me, and I'm not sure if it's a conflict for anyone," said Cole. "I represented a broker in a commission dispute. [Coleman] had her own lawyer; it certainly wasn't me."
Coleman says the entire experience amounted to a very expensive lesson.
"I tried to do the right thing, but I learned you don't go to seek justice at the courthouse," said Coleman. "Early on, one attorney said to me, 'Darling, you don't have enough money to play in this sandbox.' He was right."
Gardiner will be working for Cole in the Plantation office after she officially leaves the bench at the end of this month.