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Broward County, Fla., union boss Walter J. Browne pleaded not guilty last week to a 40-page federal indictment accusing him and his sister, Patricia Browne Devaney, of running a racketeering scheme that milked hundreds of thousands of dollars from the union he heads and four local companies. Browne, sometimes known by the nickname Buster, is president of the 7,000-member National Federation of Public and Private Employees. His sister was his former administrative assistant. The 22-count indictment, returned Thursday and unsealed Friday, alleges that starting in 1994, Browne and Devaney used their union posts to “dominate and control its operation for their personal gain,” according to a press release issued by the Justice Department. They are accused of engaging in a pattern of criminal activity consisting of mail and bank fraud, embezzlement, gambling and unlawful labor practices. Not included were any charges relating to health insurance contracts awarded by the Broward County School Board while Browne was a member of the board’s insurance committee. Neither were there any charges related to a Broward license tag agency with ties to Brown. In 1999, a federal grand jury subpoenaed records from the Broward County School Board; HIP Health Plan of Florida Inc.; a lobbying firm called Regional Consultants, run by Browne pal Andrew J. DiBattista; another lobbying firm called F.C.O. Inc., owned by Broward AFL-CIO union leader and Pembroke Pines City Commissioner Frank C. Ortis; and First Broward Auto Tag Agency. On Friday, Browne, wearing a plaid shirt and looking rumpled after a night in federal custody, was asked by U.S. Magistrate Barry Seltzer whether he understood the charges against him. “Yes, I do,” said Browne. Outside the court, as he was being led away by U.S. marshals to post a $150,000 personal surety bond, Browne was asked to comment. “What’s to say? I’m not gonna try my case in the newspapers … unless you’re on the jury,” he said. Fort Lauderdale, Fla., lawyer Barry Roderman represents Browne. In 1993, Browne was acquitted by a judge of federal mail fraud charges in Fort Lauderdale. In 1996, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mail tampering in an alleged scheme to rig a 1988 union vote. In the more recent past, as bits and pieces of the U.S. Department of Labor’s current investigation became public, Browne vociferously defended himself against any suggestion of wrongdoing. In April 2000, William J. Coleman, owner of a Port Everglades, Fla., cargo handling firm, pleaded guilty to violating an anti-bribery statute in the Taft-Hartley labor and management relations law by paying a $2,000 bribe to Browne. That law makes it illegal for companies to pay money to a union official “who represents, seeks to represent or would admit to membership” company employees. Browne admitted accepting the money, but said it had nothing to do with his union business. Nevertheless, the grand jury included that as an alleged racketeering act in its indictment. Browne also is accused of similar violations by taking, or seeking to take, $300,000 in bribes from the former Hvide Marine, now known as Seabulk International; International Cruises, a venture which sought to bring a gambling ship to Port Everglades in 1995 and SeaAmerica Cruise Lines, a company currently attempting to build and operate a U.S. flagged cruise line. Hvide Marine has pleaded guilty to paying a bribe to Browne. Special U.S. Attorney Julia Stiller, who’s leading the prosecution of Browne, says no charges are being contemplated against the other companies. Browne is also charged with defrauding his union by submitting false entertainment vouchers, and by using union funds to pay his personal airline tickets and telephone expenses. He was also charged with running high-stakes poker games at the union hall, a state misdemeanor. Devaney faces similar accusations, including submitted false vouchers, buying airplane tickets and taking a $30,000 union-owned car. She’s also charged with embezzling $116,000 from the union over 3-1/2 years by issuing unauthorized checks, which she would later forge, to herself, her daughter and husband. Browne and Devaney, who was not arraigned Friday because she had not retained permanent counsel, face 20 years and a $500,000 fine if convicted of racketeering. Both were released after posting personal surety bonds of $150,000 each. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley in West Palm Beach, Fla.

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