Outgoing Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti has touted his pretrial release program as one of his top achievements in office -- and a lot of people in the justice system agree with him.
"That program is important to working poor people but it’s also incredibly important to the citizens of Broward County," said Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, who has often disagreed with Lamberti.
Lamberti's program has allowed hundreds of indigent inmates who are not considered dangers to the community to get out of jail while awaiting trial and has been cited as having been a successful way to reduce jail overcrowding and avoid potentially hefty federal fines.
But now Finkelstein and others are worried that Sheriff Elect Scott Israel, who takes office next week, is going to decimate the program in order to pay back the bail bonds industry that contributed heavily to his campaign.
Bail bondsmen have for years railed against Lamberti's program because it impinges on their business; inmates who are allowed out of jail on supervised release don't pay bail. And they backed Israel in a big way, contributing many thousands of dollars to his campaign. One of his biggest supporters was veteran bondsman Wayne Spath, a vocal critic of the pretrial release program who not only gave the maximum to Israel's campaign but also gave $10,000 to a PAC called Securing our Safety that ran attack ads on Lamberti.
In a troubling move to many, Israel has announced that he's getting rid of the two BSO directors who have run the program, Kristina Gullick and Debra Lesniak, who are both widely respected administrators.
"These are hard-working conscientious people, two quality people," said Finkelstein. "It troubles me ... politics in the sheriff's office has always troubled me going back to the days of Ed Stack."
Now Israel is considering hiring the heavily political bondsman Spath at BSO to monitor the jail population. "Wayne Spath and I have talked about him working in the community control division in the jail," Israel confirmed. "... One critical issue I'll deal with in the coming years is prison population."
When asked if that would be a conflict of interest since Spath's private business is directly related to the jail, Israel acknowledged it would be.
"I’ve told him that and unless he sells or diverges the bail bonds business he wouldn’t be considered," said Israel.
Despite the fact that he's essentially fired the two people running the program and is considering hiring an enemy of the program to help oversee it, Israel says he's not planning to end it. He did say his staff was reevaluating the program and didn't rule out changes.
"I am a big believer in the pretrial release program and it will always exist in some fashion," he said. "We may curtail it a little bit, we may keep it the way it is, or we may enhance it."
Finkelstein is a long-time friend of Spath who said he has great integrity, but he said hiring a bondsman to oversee the jail population is "unacceptable."
"It is very unsettling that somebody who is of the bonding world would take over this department," said Finkelstein. "... I don’t believe that private business interests should even be part of the equation when dealing with justice."
Attempts to speak with Spath were unsuccessful, as those at his Brandy Bail Bonds office in Fort Lauderdale said he was out of town. It's expected that if he does "diverge" from the bail bonds business, he would give ownership of the business to his two daughers, Mia and Tia, who already have management roles there.