- By John Pacenti Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Despite its urban setting and diverse population, Palm Beach County’s politics still run on a small-town mentality where long-standing feuds lie dormant and then erupt.
Few figures split these treacherous waters like one Michael McAuliffe.
A former state attorney, McAuliffe is running to be a circuit judge — a powerful position that can oversee multi-million-dollar civil disputes or the fate of convicted murderers facing the death penalty.
He’s been gone from the political scene for six years after he abruptly exited the state attorney’s office in March 2012 with 8½ months left in his term. He went to work for energy magnate and Palm Beacher Bill Koch — the lesser known brother of the conservative kingpins.
McAuliffe played a central role in the palace intrigue of Koch’s West Palm Beach-based Oxbow Carbon where the billionaire accused him of high corporate betrayal. The official line from Oxbow is he resigned in February 2016, but in court testimony, Koch said he fired McAuliffe.
Now that he aims to come back to public service, McAuliffe is proving to be powerfully polarizing. His judicial campaign has ignited animosities from bridges burned while it is amassing key support. The sheriff provides significant law enforcement backing, but the county mayor excoriates him.
Detractors connect the dots between his time in office and his time in Koch country as evidence of a lack of temperament for the bench. Critics say McAuliffe is thin-skinned, vindictive, a bully and pursued high-profile prosecutions for political reasons.
“It is the ‘anybody but McAuliffe’ campaign,” said West Palm Beach attorney Gregg Lerman, a former judicial candidate himself, about a vocal segment of the county’s tight-knit legal community.
Yet, McAuliffe says he is a changed man and dedicated to public service. That’s a tough pill to swallow for some of his critics.
“To claim to have the desire now to be a civil servant comes off as disingenuous to some,” Lerman said.
McAuliffe faces former county magistrate Sarah Willis and retired U.S. Army judge advocate Henry Quinn Johnson in Group 25. But he is really running against his own past.
“This race is a referendum on Mike McAuliffe,” said Andre Fladell, a political power-broker who has helped shape Palm Beach County’s elections for three decades. “I don’t believe it’s a contest of qualifications.”
‘A bit of spit and vinegar’
At campaign events, McAuliffe comes hat in hand.
“About 10 years ago when I was becoming state attorney, I had a bit of spit and vinegar in me and I thought I would change the world and 10 years later the world has changed me,” he said. “So I’m coming back to renew my relationship with the community in a more humble way.”
Not everyone is buying McAuliffe 2.0.
These non-believers say McAuliffe is the same political animal. “I don’t think that a leopard can change his spots that quickly,” said Palm Beach County Mayor Melissa McKinlay.
In January 2011, she filed an ethics complaint against the then-state attorney, claiming he tried to intimidate her in a parking lot when she worked as an aide to Palm Beach County’s legislative delegation. She said that he told her that “I had better be careful about who I spent time with and who I listened to” regarding his office.
To McKinlay, the encounter is disqualifying.
“Anybody who has a previous history of abusing the power of their office should not sit in one of the most powerful positions in the county,” McKinlay told The Palm Beach Post recently. The Florida Commission on Ethics, though, dismissed the complaint, finding McAuliffe wasn’t trying to secure a “special privilege.”
He said he reached out to McKinlay to try to make amends for what he said was a single brief public encounter where he came across as “too aggressive or the tone was inappropriate.”
“I’ve apologized for that episode,” he said. “For me … it’s trying to move forward and do what you can to restart or reset relationships.”
McAuliffe is at a distinct disadvantage in combating any criticism. Because of attorney-client privilege and confidentiality concerns, he is tongue-tied about his time working for Koch — and Oxbow would not release him to speak. Unlike other candidates for office, judicial candidates are limited under rules that govern what they can say while campaigning.
Still, the 55-year-old avid mountain climber never shied away from a challenge, so he sat down for an hour on a recent Sunday afternoon with The Post before heading out to Belle Glade to press the flesh.
“I can’t control what others do or say and that is just the reality of life,” McAuliffe said. “It’s a one-way street. I’m not casting aspersions on anyone else.”
McAuliffe said he would do things differently from when he was the hard-charging state attorney focused on public corruption, gang violence and pill mills after his election in 2008.
“Did I make mistakes? Of course. Are there things I would do differently? Yes, the answer would have to be yes and it is yes,” McAuliffe said. “I also think we accomplished a lot, and I’m proud of those accomplishments.”
McAuliffe adds a caveat to his mea culpa: He believes his past as state attorney is old news and has been dissected more so than it is worth.
‘Secret mission’ of mutiny
McAuliffe abandoned a run for re-election in 2012 for what he called a “once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity” to work for Koch.
The opportunity, though, was hardly a dream job, as court documents attest.
McAuliffe’s time with Koch played out like a Shakespearean drama with an executive claiming McAuliffe helped direct his kidnapping and the billionaire accusing McAuliffe of a full-out mutiny to usurp the company out from under him.
A Delaware court case spells out his bumpy ride in the sidecar as general counsel to Koch’s energy company.
In that lawsuit filed by Koch, the billionaire claimed corporate shenanigans involving Crestview Partners, a private equity firm that had a part of a $150 million stake in Oxbow and wanted Koch to buy them out at a profit. Koch balked, and Crestview tried to force the sale of Oxbow.
Koch didn’t name McAuliffe as a defendant in the lawsuit but did accuse him in the complaint of aligning with Oxbow executives — including Chief Commercial Officer Eric Johnson and board member Christina O’Donnell — in a “secret mission” to force the sale and replace him as CEO and chairman of the board.
“Let’s take his company from him quickly, not a day of relief, put him through the hell he put us through,’’ O’Donnell emailed Johnson, according to a court document. She adds: “Let’s take his plane, his job, and when it’s over let’s drink his wine.”
The complaint claims McAuliffe wanted Johnson, his friend, to ascend to CEO.
On the stand, Koch offered another motivation for McAuliffe to sell Oxbow from under him: “Then he would get that money and have enough money to run for Congress.”
Parties in the vicious case have worked hard to keep documents under wraps, but The Post obtained a transcript of Koch’s July 2017 testimony. At one point, he is asked whether he thinks McAuliffe is capable of being “dishonest under oath.”
“At times, I did question his honesty,” Koch testified.
Koch said McAuliffe shut him out of his own company, refusing to talk to him.
“I fired him because he was not giving me the information that I needed,” Koch testified in court. “He put a long wall around the legal department and wouldn’t tell me anything that was going on.”
McAuliffe testified that he was investigating improprieties by the billionaire and had sought outside legal opinions, which rankled Koch.
Koch testified that McAuliffe was trying to trump up claims against him to force him out.
“But he hadn’t read … the employee handbook that he claimed that he had written, which said I had every right to do what I was doing,” he said.
In the end, the Delaware judge didn’t find any Brutus-like betrayal by McAuliffe. He found Koch couldn’t block the exit sale and that McAuliffe believed when it came to Crestview he was working in the “best interests of Oxbow, and ultimately, Koch.”
The whole matter, of course, has been appealed.
Alleged kidnapping at Bear Ranch
Koch, 78, not only runs Oxbow but founded the prep school Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach and resides in a 48,000-square-foot ocean-to-lake estate in Palm Beach. Koch’s net worth is pegged by Bloomberg at $3.92 billion. He declined to comment for this story.
Koch’s passions are well documented. He is an avid wine collector and Old West aficionado, collecting art and memorabilia. He paid $2 million for the only known photo of Billy the Kid and rebuilt an Old West town near his secluded sprawling ranch in Colorado.
It was at the ranch where the alleged kidnapping took place.
Both McAuliffe and Koch were named as defendants in a lawsuit filed in 2014 by a Oxbow subsidiary’s former senior vice president Kirby Martensen, who claimed that Koch lured him on March 22, 2012, to his secluded Bear Ranch in Colorado under false pretenses. McAuliffe had left the state attorney’s office just one week earlier.
Martensen said he was taken out to Koch’s Old West town and interrogated for hours, accusing him of stealing more than $40 million and colluding with a competitor. He said he couldn’t leave, couldn’t call out for help and had no internet service, among other claims.
A Gunnison County, Colo., Sheriff’s deputy was suspended because he had been hired by Koch — according to Martensen’s lawsuit — to park outside the window of the cabin where they questioned him, telling him it was “to make sure you don’t wander off.”
Martensen says he was given his walking papers and flown against his will in a Koch plane back to California to head home to Asia, unemployed.
Koch had sued Martensen in Palm Beach County in 2012, accusing him of ripping off the company by accepting bribes and payments from competitors, among other accusations.
Martensen said in his lawsuit that McAuliffe was tasked with framing him because Martensen aimed to go public with tax evasion by Oxbow on $200 million in profit from sales of petroleum coke.
“Defendant McAuliffe was hired in part based on his relationships with local judges and law enforcement officials in Palm Beach County, Florida, where Oxbow filed a frivolous, vexatious and defamatory lawsuit against Martensen based on allegations Koch and Oxbow knew were false,” the lawsuit reads.
McAuliffe was dropped from the suit a few months after he was named as a defendant.
Martensen’s lawsuit was dismissed and Koch’s settled, court records show.
“I’ve tried to be a thoughtful, effective professional — and in this case, a lawyer — in my role as a private practitioner or officeholder,” McAuliffe said generally. “I have high expectations of myself.”
‘The revenge factor’
As his critics square old political debts by conjuring up his time at Oxbow, McAuliffe has won over others in his pursuit of a judge’s black robe.
West Palm Beach attorney Valentin Rodriguez said he once opposed McAuliffe over some of his policies as state attorney but now sees him as a changed man and the most qualified candidate. He said he is impressed with how McAuliffe took on the Ku Klux as a federal prosecutor.
“People blow things up,” said Rodriguez, who is also vice mayor of Lake Clarke Shores. “I understand the politics of it and the revenge factor. They would like to see Mike McAuliffe go down in flames because of decisions he made eight years ago.”
Rodriguez said he has received blowback from his colleagues for supporting McAuliffe.
“A lot of them feel personally offended by him for things he did in office,” Rodriguez said. “But you can make mistakes as a politician, and it doesn’t mean you can’t be a great judge. I consider him very talented legally and someone who can be fair.”
McAuliffe’s campaign is hardly suffering. He has landed key endorsements from law enforcement and the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women. He loaned the campaign $250,000 of his own money and raised another $100,000. McAuliffe has spent more than both of his opponents combined.
Sheriff Ric Bradshaw extolls the “great working relationship” that he had with state attorney McAuliffe. Bradshaw is featured prominently on McAuliffe’s campaign website and in campaign commercials that promote him as a law-and-order candidate. McAuliffe insists he would be fair if cases involving the sheriff appear before him as a judge.
The candidate also positioned himself when he parachuted out of another judicial circuit race where his opponent would have been Scott Kerner — brother of County Commissioner Dave Kerner. McAuliffe’s campaign said it was a strategic move, not a political one.
And it doesn’t hurt that McAuliffe’s better half is U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg whose parents are well known Democratic donors.
West Palm Beach attorney Grey Tesh said many lawyers are reluctant supporters, making a calculated bet McAuliffe will win the race because of his campaign war chest and that his wife is a federal judge.
“You don’t want an enemy up there when you have a client,” he said. “He is a guy who will keep a list.”
Some critics of McAuliffe contacted for this story said they were reluctant to go on the record considering that there was a good chance either husband or wife could be overseeing their cases.
Tesh said he chose to speak out because McAuliffe drove away good prosecutors while he was state attorney.
“It needs to be said: He does not have the temperament for a judge. A judge should be patient, tolerant and kind,” Tesh said. “He is very thin-skinned and he drove away otherwise good prosecutors. … He just got too arrogant.”
Adam Rabin, a West Palm Beach attorney, has known McAuliffe since before he ran for state attorney. He said some of the animosity comes from McAuliffe’s efforts to institute a corporate culture of accountability for prosecutors.
“Some of Michael’s ideas that seemed like good ideas at the time didn’t work out as planned and led to some cultural changes in the office,” Rabin said.
Rabin said McAuliffe, through tests of the past decade, has developed the maturity required to be a judge.
Elizabeth Parker, who was chief assistant state attorney under McAuliffe and is now in private practice, said McAuliffe wasn’t afraid to make unpopular decisions and was indeed hands-on. She said this makes him perfect for the bench and has no questions about his temperament.
“Most prosecutors tend to be Type A personalities, who work well with little oversight and direction. Michael McAuliffe had a different management style than his predecessor,” Parker said. “I think that took some getting used to by everyone.”
Jill Richstone, a state homicide assistant state attorney since 1991, said while some prosecutors left disgruntled because of McAuliffe, lots more stayed. She said it was a myth that McAuliffe took away his prosecutors’ discretion on cases.
“As a boss, I found McAuliffe was exceptional and completely professional and always had the best intentions,” she said. “I think he would be an amazing judge.”
The Koons case
By the time McAuliffe became only the third state attorney here in four decades, Palm Beach County had earned the nickname “corruption county” after several officials, including three sitting county commissioners, were prosecuted on corruption charges and sent to prison.
As state attorney, McAuliffe convened a grand jury on public corruption, which issued a report in May 2009 finding ethics an afterthought in the county as officials misused slush funds and gave favored players cushy contracts and land deals.
McAuliffe ruffled establishment feathers by seeking a grand jury indictment against Commissioner Jeff Koons in 2010, a fellow Democrat, on corruption charges they said were weak, according to a Post investigation in 2012.
Critics claimed that Koons — who threatened a rival of a pet project on an answering machine — was just a notch in McAuliffe’s belt to make good on his promise to clean up the county’s tarnished image.
“In my opinion, there was nothing to clean up” as far as the Koons case was concerned, then-County Commissioner Burt Aaronson said at a commission meeting.
“Nobody in this county can take claim for anything as much as (Koons) can,” he said. “This county will miss him greatly.”
Koons resigned and pleaded guilty to extortion, perjury and violating the open meetings law. He was placed on probation for five years.
McAuliffe also targeted a well-known educator.
Ernest Brown, band director of Suncoast High School, was indicted by a grand jury on charges of using booster money to take family and friends on a Paris trip.
The charges brought against Brown were dismissed by current State Attorney Dave Aronberg whose office found they were brought by his predecessor after the statute of limitations had run out, according to a closeout memo.
McAuliffe also ousted Mike Edmondson as his spokesperson and consultant. Edmondson engineered McAuliffe’s state attorney campaign and has deep roots and allies in the Democratic Party. McKinlay says she still has no idea why McAuliffe confronted her in the parking lot but reports were McAuliffe became enraged because she was talking to Edmondson.
Later McKinlay, called for jury duty in September 2012, told a stunned judge she couldn’t serve on the jury because she had been “threatened by the state attorney.”
Aronberg clearly saw McAuliffe as vulnerable. The Post reported at the time that Aronberg mounted a shadow campaign to weaken McAuliffe as Aronberg contemplated a run for the office himself in the 2012 election. The campaign included staging protests outside the state attorney’s office — replete with planes flying banners calling McAuliffe a putz. Aronberg on Saturday “strongly denied” he had anything to do with the protests of McAuliffe.
‘I’m fully committed’
Opponents said that some of McAuliffe’s high-profile prosecutions, such as the Brown case, were about generating headlines.
“They seemed those were political cases for someone who claimed not to be political,” said West Palm Beach attorney John Cleary.
Cleary adds that McAuliffe ran for state attorney as a reformer and appeared to accept political favors, “but when people came to collect the favor he said, ‘I’m not a politician.’ … He just didn’t understand how anybody could be mad at him.”
Cleary said McAuliffe had criticized prosecutors who left the office as showing a lack of commitment only to leave himself.
He said if he’s elected to the bench, however, he plans to stay and points to how much of his own money he has sunk into his campaign.
“I’m fully committed,” he said. “I’ve been running for 14 months and I’ve garnered broad diverse support in the community and they want me to come back.”
Fladell, the political power broker, has forgotten more about Palm Beach County elections than most people will learn in a lifetime.
Fladell thinks the McAuliffe judicial race is interesting to political soothsayers like himself because it will pit “high-name recognition candidate with a number of negatives” against opponents that the public never heard of before.
He predicts McAuliffe’s name recognition will win out and he will take the bench, even avoiding a runoff by getting more than 50 percent of the vote on Aug. 28.
“It will be an interesting test case,” he said. “Michael is not dumb. The question is what has he learned. I hope his decisions as state attorney taught him a lot of good lessons.”