Tuesday, June 19, 2007
7 News Investigations: Judge Zack
Controversy tonight surrounding still another Broward County judge. This time the issue is a loan uncovered by seven news that legal expert say should never have been made. Investigative reporter Carmel Cafiero is on the case with this exclusive report.
WSVN -- Bailiff: All rise. County court is now in session, the Honorable Robert S. Zack in presiding.
Robert Zack is a Broward County court judge. His decisions impact people facing criminal violations.
At issue now: Judge Zack's decision to accept a loan from an attorney.
Chris Roberts, defense attorney: "He advised me that he needed money to do some repairs for his home that were caused by Hurricane Katrina."
Defense attorney Chris Roberts says Zack asked him for a loan of $2500. Roberts says this is a copy of the check he wrote to Judge Zack.
In the memo section, it reads personal loan and on the back of the check it appears to be endorsed by Judge Zack.
Chris Roberts: "I felt taken advantage of."
Roberts, who regularly had to try cases in front of Judge Zack says he felt pressured to make the loan.
Chris Roberts: "There's always that thought that if I don't come through, I'm not going to be treated the same or he may resent the fact that I didn't loan the money or something."
Legal experts say generally a loan between a judge and a lawyer may result in favoritism.
Bob Jarvis: "And that judge is going to think twice whenever that lawyer is in front of him or her, making sure to take care of that lawyer and that lawyer's client."
Law professor Bob Jarvis says judges are not allowed to ask for or accept such a loan.
Bob Jarvis, Nova Law Professor: "Well it's clearly unethical. The Code of Judicial Conduct, which regulates judge's behavior makes it clear that judges are not supposed to do that."
Judge Zack did not return calls to his office for his side of all this, so I had to catch up with him after work.
Carmel Cafiero: "We'd like to talk with you about a $2500 loan Chris Roberts said he made to you last year."
Judge Zack: "What about it?"
Carmel Cafiero: "Do you think it's appropriate for you to borrow money from a lawyer who practices in front of you?"
Judge Zack: "I don't think I have any comment on that right now."
Carmel Cafiero: "Judge, here's the canceled check with your signature on it. Is that appropriate?"
Judge Zack: "Ma'am I have no comment."
And there's more. Judges are required to file a financial disclosure form with the state every year. Seven news obtained a copy of Judge Zack's form for 2006. The loan from Roberts is not listed although according to the check, the loan was made months before the document was submitted.
Roberts also told me the loan had not been repaid although more than a year had passed.
Chris Roberts: "It's a very difficult situation Carmel and I don't even really want to be here talking to you about it. It's very painful for me. It bothers me greatly."
Judge Zack would not answer questions about the loan.
Carmel Cafiero: "Isn't this a serious issue, don't you think you should address it?"
Judge Zack: "No comment."
Carmel Cafiero: "No comment whatsoever, judge? Even though we are told ethically this is inappropriate?"
The day after I questioned the judge, a check was slipped under the door to Chris Robert's law office.
This is a copy. It's from Judge Zack to Roberts for $2500. The memo reads loan repayment.
Judge Geoff Cohen says he and fellow judges are fed up with reports yet another Broward judge may have exercised poor judgment.
Judge Cohen: "It embarrasses, deeply embarrasses the judges and the lawyers."
It's not clear what will happen the next time Roberts faces Judge Zack. It almost happened when Judge Zack was hearing another judge's cases and Roberts came into the courtroom.
Judge Zack left the bench, but it won't be as easy to avoid the fallout that may follow over the loan from lawyer to judge.