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For the second time in two months, Senior U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King in Miami has removed himself from all his criminal cases as federal and state agents have targeted his longtime secretary and her husband in a drug and money laundering probe. Federal prosecutors in West Palm Beach believe that King’s secretary, Sandra Diaz, passed copies of court documents to her husband, Jorge Diaz, shortly before his April 29 arrest in Key Largo on federal marijuana conspiracy charges. In court filings, prosecutors described the items she passed to her husband as computer printouts of all court documents regarding the arrests of two of Jorge Diaz’s alleged associates at his marijuana “grow house” in Loxahatchee, Fla. The printouts allegedly were downloaded from the online PACER system, which is publicly accessible to subscribers. In an interview June 8, Judge King said his initial recusal on May 16 had nothing to do with rumored legal difficulties of a member of his staff. King acknowledged that a relative of that staffer had been indicted on federal charges but he would not disclose the circumstances or further identify the individuals. There is no indication that the government suspects King of any wrongdoing. Neither King — who’s 77 and formerly served as chief judge of the Southern District of Florida — nor current Chief Judge William J. Zloch returned calls for comment last week. Miami solo practitioner Mario S. Cano represents Sandra Diaz. He said Diaz would not comment on the matter. Observers say King’s decision to abandon his entire criminal docket twice in such a short period of time is extraordinary. “I’m unfamiliar with any equivalent situation ever occurring,” said Federal Public Defender Kathleen Williams, who remains puzzled by King’s actions. Meanwhile, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta last week declined to prohibit the type of direct case transfers between judges that occurred after King removed himself from his criminal cases the first time in May. The transfers from King to U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore were done according to an unpublished and previously undisclosed Local Policy Manual. But the transfers contravened published Local Rules. The 11th Circuit, without comment, denied a petition for a writ of mandamus by Miami attorneys Howard and Scott Srebnick that sought to prohibit judges in the Southern District from using the unpublished court rule to reassign cases to each other. LAWYERS SURPRISED AND UPSET Many South Florida lawyers were surprised and upset when the Daily Business Review first reported on the unpublished manual last month, and they demanded that the Southern District of Florida publicly disclose the manual. The court has refused to do so. The unpublished rule contravenes published Local Rules, which provides for the blind and random assignment of cases by the federal court clerk. Under the published Local Rules, recusing judges may not influence the selection of their successors. Howard Srebnick is defending former Hamilton Bank chief Eduardo Masferrer in his fraud and conspiracy case. King transferred Masferrer’s case directly to Moore on May 16 when King initially recused himself from all 21 of his criminal cases. That spurred Srebnick to ask Moore to send all those cases to the clerk for random reassignment. In seeking to justify the direct transfer, Moore, in a written order, cited a rule in the Local Policy Manual that he said gave judges the authority to “confer and directly transfer all or any part of a case on the judge’s docket to any consenting judge.” Moore did not rule and sent the matter to Chief Judge Zloch for a final decision. On June 9, Zloch ruled that King’s original recusal was actually not a recusal. Zloch wrote that “it is clear that said order was intended to be an order of transfer” under the Local Policy Manual. He did not explain how that was made clear to him. The Srebnick brothers appealed. Among other things, they attacked what they called the district court’s “disregard of the published Local Rules in favor an unpublished policy manual. In an interview, Howard Srebnick said he was disappointed in the 11th Circuit’s decision, contending that public knowledge of the investigation of King’s secretary might have made a difference in the outcome. “Perhaps the appellate court would have ruled differently had these circumstances been disclosed,” said Srebnick, a partner at Black Srebnick & Kornspan of Miami. Three weeks after transferring his cases to Moore, King decided to start taking criminal case assignments again. But on June 16, King reversed course again when he asked Chief Judge Zloch to reassign all his criminal cases. King’s “oral request” prompted Zloch to write an administrative order that parceled out King’s new criminal docket at random. At least eight of King’s cases were assigned to six different judges. POT SUPPLY STORE After King first dropped his criminal docket in May, courthouse sources identified his secretary, Sandra Diaz, as the member of King’s staff whose husband was under investigation. Sources described her as a “wonderful person” who has worked as King’s secretary for about a decade. On May 13, a federal grand jury in Miami indicted her 38-year-old husband, Jorge, twice on drug charges. In the first case, Diaz was charged with conspiring with an acquaintance, Tommy Rodriguez, to possess and distribute marijuana grown at the Loxahatchee house and at a residence in Royal Palm Beach. In the second case, the indictment says Diaz conspired with his cousin, Pedro Correa, 31, “to manufacture with intent to distribute” marijuana at the home in Royal Palm Beach. Diaz faces up to 40 years in prison and a $2 million fine if convicted. His attorney, Stuart Adelstein of Adelstein & Matters in Miami, did not return telephone calls seeking comment. A spokeswoman for interim U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta also declined to comment. But court records say the investigation began when state agents with a money laundering task force placed under surveillance Gold Coast Hydroponics, a Fort Lauderdale store “known to supply growers of hydroponic plants, including marijuana.” A truck registered to Jorge Diaz was spotted parked there. Agents used Florida Power & Light records to identify the house in Loxahatchee that Diaz owned, and conducted “trash pulls” that yielded small amounts of marijuana on clothing and dryer lint. Agents armed with a search warrant raided the home on 78th Place North on April 12. Rodriguez and his girlfriend, Kyrenia Blanco, were arrested and quickly cooperated. Rodriguez implicated Diaz, and gave agents enough to search a second grow house, where more than 100 marijuana plants were seized. After further investigation, Diaz and Correa were arrested April 29. Diaz was located by agents who tailed his wife, Sandra. He was nabbed at his in-laws’ mobile home in Key Largo. MONEY LAUNDERING PROBE Court records say agents found in Diaz’s possession “PACER printouts of all the documents relating to the arrests of Rodriguez and Blanco, documents that were believed to have been obtained by his wife, Sandra Diaz.” Also found was a carbon copy of a $25,000 cashier’s check from the couple’s joint account, made payable to an attorney who represented Rodriguez and Blanco. U.S. Magistrate Judge Linnea R. Johnson in West Palm Beach ordered Jorge Diaz jailed as a flight risk and a danger to the community. He appealed the order to Judge Zloch. In a June 1 response to the appeal, Assistant U.S. Attorney A. Marie Villafana in West Palm Beach disclosed that Sandra Diaz also was under investigation. “Diaz’s wife has recently been served with a ‘target letter,’ informing her that she is the target of a grand jury investigation involving charges of money laundering, making false statements to law enforcement and narcotics manufacturing and distributing,” Villafana said. Zloch dismissed Diaz’s attempt to get out of jail. Five days later, Zloch recused himself from Diaz’s case without explanation. The clerk reassigned the case to U.S. District Judge Kenneth A. Marra in Fort Lauderdale.

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