HOLLYWOOD, Fla. – Broward County Judge Claudia Robinson won her seat on the bench by a razor-thin margin in 2014, scraping out a victory over incumbent Ian Richards by a mere 541 votes out of more than 360,000 votes cast.
It was a huge victory, not only for the vastly outspent and unknown Robinson, but also for her good friend and campaign consultant Michael Ahearn, who said the victory was his signature victory as longtime political operative.
"I had a significant role in the campaign," said Ahearn, an attorney who wasn't paid for his work from Robinson's campaign account.
Since her election, though, it's Robinson, using her official powers as judge, who has been helping out Ahearn.
Court records show that out of 299 appointments that she gave to attorneys to mediate civil cases before her, 247 of them went to her campaign consultant.
That's 83 percent of the cases, and they led to tens of thousands of dollars going into Ahearn's pockets.
"Is this favoritism towards your campaign manager?" Local 10 News investigative reporter Bob Norman asked Robinson in her courtroom.
"Absolutely not," said Robinson, who didn't dispute the numbers but said she couldn't confirm them either.
Norman asked if the number was "250 out of 300, roughly?"
"Again, I'm not stipulating to that figure," said Robinson. "Have I given (Ahearn) mediations, appointed mediations? Absolutely. Have I appointed mediations to a plethora of other mediators? Absolutely, as well."
"And that's not as payment for his work on your campaign?" asked Norman.
"No," Robinson said.
If such an arrangement existed, it would be illegal. Florida law makes it a third-degree felony for political candidates to promise appointments in exchange for campaign support.
"There is absolutely no promise that was made to Mr. Ahearn," said Robinson. "There were no promises that I made to anybody as part of my campaign."
Ahearn denied there was any prearranged deal as well.
"I don't know whether it was favoritism or not," he said.
"You never had any type of conversation with Judge Robinson about getting these types of recommendations/appointments?" asked Norman.
"Never," answered Ahearn.
"They just happened?" asked Norman.
"No. They just happened," he said.
Ahearn countered that because litigants can disregard the judge's order and choose another attorney to mediate, he doesn't believe the law applies in this case.
"Just because my name is on 250 orders doesn't mean I did 250 mediations," he said.
Of those 247 appointments, Ahearn mediated about 180 of them, which at $250 an hour and a minimum of an hour for each, comes out to about $45,000 in business for the lawyer.
"Did I help her get elected? Absolutely," said Ahearn. "Have I received this as some kind of compensation for that? Absolutely not."
He said neither he nor Robinson knew what kind of cases she would be assigned during the campaign, making a quid pro quo impossible.
"All I can say is that there was never a promise," he said.