County Judge Santino’s future on bench now up to state panel

Palm Beach County Judge Dana Santino on Wednesday tearfully apologized for currying votes in 2016 by blasting her opponent for representing “murderers, rapists, child molesters and other criminals.” She admitted she made “a terrible mistake” and violated judicial canons. She summoned judges and others to testify about her life of good works.

But, at the end of an emotional seven-hour hearing, it was unclear whether Santino would be allowed to remain on the county court bench for her attacks on criminal defense attorney Gregg Lerman during this past fall’s campaign.

The decision is now in the hands of a six-member panel of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which said it would make a recommendation to the Florida Supreme Court in several weeks.

But when grilling Santino on Wednesday, panelists left little doubt that they believed her attacks raised questions about her understanding of the bedrock principles of the U.S. Constitution and about her ability to continue to serve as a judge.

“Is your understanding of Canon 7 indicative of your ability to apply the law?” 5th Judicial Circuit Judge Michelle Morley asked Santino pointedly, referring to judicial rules the first-year judge swore to uphold and then violated.

Santino, a former probate and guardianship attorney, struggled to explain her actions. The rigors of the campaign left her exhausted and unable to think straight, she said. When her political consultant, Richard Giorgio, insisted she was on firm legal ground, she believed him, she said.

“I was a political neophyte,” the 49-year-old said. “I relied on my campaign manager to help me.”

Morley and other panelists were unimpressed.

“Frankly, I’m taking offense that you think you’re the only person who has ever run for office,” Morley said. “You should be excused because you were tired? You should be excused because you relied on Mr. Giorgio?”

Other panelists focused on her cavalier response to those who warned her that her comments were inappropriate. She ignored an advisory committee of the Palm Beach County Bar Association when it unanimously ruled that her attacks on Lerman violated judicial canons. Instead, Santino told The Palm Beach Post, “it is just that — their opinion.”

She testified that she ordered Giorgio to take down an offensive Facebook page that repeated the same allegations against Lerman and went further, saying, “Gregg Lerman has made a lot of money trying to free Palm Beach County’s worst criminals.”

Panelists said she could have done more.

“You never said to the citizens of Palm Beach County that the Facebook page was a violation of the rules I pledged to follow and it was deplorable?” asked panelist Mayanne Downs, an attorney.

“I did not,” Santino said.

Panelist Alvin Alsobrook, a former vice president of the University of Florida, wondered why Santino didn’t fire Giorgio if, as she claimed, he posted the Facebook page without her permission.

“I did not fire him and I should have,” she said.

While Giorgio’s actions loomed large at the hearing, he did not testify. Instead, he submitted a sworn statement, explaining his role in Santino’s campaign.

The hearing in the small courtroom was packed with Santino supporters. Judges and attorneys stopped in to watch the unusual proceedings.

While two other Palm Beach County judges have been accused by the judicial watchdog group of violating judicial canons, both settled their cases before hearings were held. County Judge Barry Cohen in 2014 accepted a public reprimand from the Florida Supreme Court after admitting he used the bench as a bully pulpit to express his liberal views. Circuit Judge Howard Berman resigned in 2001, days before a panel was to hear testimony about sexual harassment allegations.

Alexander Williams, a special counsel for the investigative arm of the JQC, insisted Santino should be removed from office.

“She maligned an honorable profession, she attacked fundamental principles of the justice system and, on top of that, Judge Santino ignored numerous warnings about the conduct,” he said.

Williams said the Supreme Court has made clear in recent years that judicial candidates will pay a high price for misconduct. Adopting a “win at all costs” strategy, Santino used scare tactics to paint Lerman as someone would coddle criminals while she would not, he said.

“She needlessly and heedlessly attacked the most fundamental principles of the justice system to advance her own interests,” Williams said. Her attacks ignored constitutional right to counsel, to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence, he said.

Her attorney, Jeremy Kroll, agreed that Santino’s comments and the Facebook page were “atrocious.” But he said the test is whether she is fit to serve.

Pointing to testimony from Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath and County Judge Ted Booras, Kroll said Santino has excelled during the seven months she has been on the bench. In court papers, he suggested that she be publicly reprimanded and ordered to pay a $50,000 fine — a punishment imposed on an Escambia County judge for similar transgressions.

Williams countered that Santino should not be allowed to buy her way out of her misdeeds. He scoffed at Kroll’s claims that she has been a good judge since assigned to handle minor civil disputes, including landlord-tenant lawsuits.

“She’s been under investigation by the JQC since she took the bench,” Williams said. “To think she would not be on her best behavior is nonsensical.”

To allow her to remain on the bench would send a bad message to other candidates and undermine people’s trust in the judiciary, he said. “A judge cannot cheat to win a judicial office and then be allowed to retain that prize,” he said.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Local

NEW: Lake Worth couple accused of selling drugs in front of children
NEW: Lake Worth couple accused of selling drugs in front of children

A suburban Lake Worth couple was arrested during the past week on allegations they sold heroin and cocaine out of their home in the the presence of children. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office arrest Irvin Lamothe, 34, last Thursday on charges that include trafficking in heroin, possession of a firearm and ammunition by a convicted felon...
Coast Guard encountered more than 1,200 boats during Trump’s 2017 stays
Coast Guard encountered more than 1,200 boats during Trump’s 2017 stays

More than 1,200 boaters off Palm Beach County had their day interrupted earlier this year by an encounter with a Coast Guard boat letting them know they’d gotten a little too close to the president of the United States. As President Trump returned to South Florida on Tuesday evening for the long Thanksgiving weekend, the first of potentially...
Trump in Palm Beach: President headed to golf course
Trump in Palm Beach: President headed to golf course

President Trump and his wife Melania and son Barron arrived at Palm Beach International Airport about 5:45 p.m. Tuesday to begin their Thanksgiving holiday. We don’t yet know what is on the President’s schedule today or when the rest of the First Family will arrive in Palm Beach. Check back for updates throughout the day. 9:30 a.m...
It’s a real headache correcting ‘Tampon Tax’ in red-state Florida
It’s a real headache correcting ‘Tampon Tax’ in red-state Florida

Normally, the email bulletins sent from the Florida Department of Revenue are dry and uninspiring. You have to be a tax wonk to care. And even then, maybe not. Recently, the department has issued guidance on such topics as: “Payments for the Purchase and Lease of Items Used for the Operation or Maintenance of a Municipally-Owned Golf Course&rdquo...
NEW: Defense says Austin Harrouff’s ‘Dr. Phil’ interview tapes incomplete
NEW: Defense says Austin Harrouff’s ‘Dr. Phil’ interview tapes incomplete

The defense attorneys for Austin Harrouff, the 20-year-old Jupiter man charged with killing two people and biting one of their faces in Martin County last year, say that the interviews between their client and TV’s Dr. Phil McGraw that have been provided to the court are not complete, according to court records. Attorney Nellie King wrote in...
More Stories