FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Dianne Thorne was on the fast track at the Broward Sheriff's Office, hired last year as Sheriff Scott Israel's personal scheduler and promoted recently to assistant to Israel's chief of staff.
Sheriff Israel defended the hire last year, saying Thorne's wasn't political payback to political sleaze-meister Roger Stone -- a self-admitted GOP hitman who worked on Israel's campaign. Stone got his start in politics on Richard Nixon's notorious CREEP committee and was a partner of now-imprisoned Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein. Thorne worked 16 years for Stone as his assistant before Israel hired her as his scheduler last May.
"That had nothing to do, Roger Stone, who he knows or what he knows, has nothing to with who we hire," Stone said last year.
Thorne was officially referred for the job by Israel's campaign strategist, Ron Gunzburger, a close friend and associate of Stone's whom Israel installed at BSO as his $205,000-a-year general counsel. Not including Gunzburger, Thorne is one of at least three Stone cohorts whom Israel hired on the public payroll after the election.
But after Local 10 began asking questions about Thorne's unverified bachelor's degree from an Australian college, she recently submitted her resignation to BSO and now there are serious questions about how Thorne, who was making $68,000 a year plus benefits, ever made it to the sheriff's inner circle in the first place.
Red flags were there, starting with her claim that she had a bachelor's degree -- which was required under the job description -- from an Australian college that had shut down. In an email to BSO before her hiring, she wrote that she didn't have her high school or college diplomas or any transcripts and that she had no way to verify she had the degree at all.
"I am at a loss of what more to do," she wrote.
The college she listed in her application, Sophia Sancta, was shut down in 1995 but was amalgamated into Penola Catholic College, which still exists. While Australian privacy laws restrict giving out any information on students, a Penola representative confirmed to Local 10 that it held records on students that had attended Sophia Sancta. Despite that, BSO chose to hire Thorne without proof of the degree, calling it "unverifiable."
"I considered her work history, the inability to verify her college degree, her personal affirmation of a college degree, and that with or without the confirmation of the degree, she met the experience equivalency of the job description," wrote BSO Maj. Chad Wagner, who head human resources in a report explaining the decision issued last week on July 2. "She was subsequently hired."
In her June 27 resignation letter, Thorne didn't mention the degree, only that she had an offer in the private sector that she "could not turn down." But her education was only the start of the questions about Thorne. The BSO background investigation also found that she had reported no earnings to the Internal Revenue Service for the years 2006-2011, despite the fact in her BSO application she listed salaries of $84,000 for those years. As it happens her former boss, Roger Stone, faces a $1.5 million tax lien from the IRS for failing to pay income taxes. Thorne has no such liens.
It appears that Thorne often accepted her compensation from private companies she started, including one called the Sea-Odyssey Group, which she owned with a man named Timothy Suereth. Thorne and Suereth were also partners in a company she listed on her BSO application, Veterans Retreat. A quick check on Suereth would have revealed that he was a convicted felon immigrant smuggler -- as well as Thorne's husband.
In 2001, Suereth was caught by the Lighthouse Point police marine unit on the Hillsboro Inlet in a 25-foot Anacapri cabin cruiser that appeared to be sinking, according to federal court records. When they asked Suereth how much water he was taking in on the sinking vessel, he replied that he wasn't taking on any water and told them all was okay. The officers contacted Sea Tow anyway, and the company's captain entered the cuddy cabin to find "people packed in there like sardines." It turned out there was 19 illegal immigrants crammed into the boat -- 17 of them Haitians. Suereth was charged with conspiracy to commit illegal alien smuggling and federal investigators learned he was involved in a shadowy smuggling network between the Bahamas and South Florida.
Suereth pleaded guilty and began cooperating with the feds on a major narcotics smuggling investigation.
"[Suereth] has participated in numerous undercover meetings and recorded phone conversations with the lead target of the investigation which has allowed the government to identify the participants as well as the methods used by the target narcotics traffickers," wrote federal prosecutors in court documents asking for leniency in Suereth's sentence.
After initially being sentenced to a year in prison, Suereth was ultimately spared incarceration, instead serving 60 days house arrest and five years probation. That sentence came down in 2002, the same year he married Thorne. At that point Thorne was already working for Stone and Suereth and his son Andrew Miller would soon join the political operative's coterie.
In 2010 the trio, under Stone's direction, worked on the campaign of New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino and were paid between them about $110,000 for their work. After the campaign, Suereth publicly claimed he was shortchanged by the campaign, prompting Paladino to label all Suereth, Thorne, and Miller "con people."
"They all show up from Florida and it's one big con," Paladino told nystateofpolitics.com in 2011. "We're paying this guy [Suereth] $12,000 a month to be a driver and he couldn't drive ... his wife [Thorne] was also on the payroll and so was his kid ... they were all con people."
More recently, Thorne was involved in starting the "Miami Tea Party," a group that was involved in campaign tricks in the sheriff's race. Thorne and Suereth, who couldn't be reached for comment, recently finalized their divorce. Suereth's son Andrew Miller -- who ran a political campaign for "Manhattan Madam" Kristin Davis last year that was halted when she was charged with dealing prescription drugs by the FBI -- now serves as "publisher" of the Broward Bugle, Sheriff Israel's campaign website. Miller's fiancée, Jen Hobbs, is another of the Stone associates that Sheriff Israel hired at $60,000 a year on the taxpayers' dime as a community liaison who remains employed at BSO. The other is Mike Colapietro, another community aide who co-writes Stone's books.
Former New York gubernatorial Libertarian candidate Warren Redlich, who is familiar with Stone's work in that state and now lives in Boca Raton, said the sheriff would do well to cut loose all of his Stone-related employees, saying the sheriff was making "a deal with the devil."
"If you're Scott Israel, Roger Stone is ultimately going to turn on you because he turns on everyone, because he's evil," said Redlich. "There's this hope that Scott Israel is going to see this piece and other pieces and say you know what there's too much baggage associated with Roger Stone that I'm going to get his people out of my office and I'm going to start running the Broward Sheriff's Office clean. That's a choice he could make right now."
Israel refused to comment for this story, but last year defended the Stone hires and other numerous politically connected hires he's made since becoming sheriff, saying, "I'm a man of honor and integrity and there is no political payback."