Howard Finkelstein, Broward Public Defender (Melanie Bell)
Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, who fired two veteran assistants, said their “hate speech” posted on Facebook made the decision an easy one.
Finkelstein on Tuesday fired Bruce Raticoff and Gary Sheres, who had been with the office for 14 and nine years, respectively, after they posted inflammatory statements about Palestinians who celebrated the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenage boys.
“I did not want to bring hurt into either of these guys’ lives. I have known them a long time. I gave them an opportunity to apologize. They didn’t want to,” Finkelstein said.
As a government agency representing indigent defendants, its officers cannot give the impression of bias, he said.
Sheres’ posting referred to certain Palestinians as “the filthy swine they don’t eat.” A subsequent Raticoff posting claimed Palestinians “are considered the cockroaches of the world. Reprehensible and despicable with utter disregard for civility and humanity. Burn them to the ground.”
The comments circulated last week in the public defender’s officer and beyond, prompting Finkelstein to call a staff meeting to explain the firings and his position on social media comments by staff.
The incident was particularly embarrassing for Assistant Public Defender Lubna Aualown, whose parents live in Gaza and whose husband’s parents live in the West Bank.
“She was hurt. She became the face of it, not because she wanted to, because she got colleagues calling her family cockroaches and swine and advocating they be killed,” Finkelstein said.
Raticoff denied making the offending comment. He submitted an affidavit from the parent of someone he alleged used his Facebook account, but Finkelstein did not believe that version.
Finkelstein also noted a television interview about the firings where Raticoff said Finkelstein fired him “so he can serve me up for lunch to his new Arab friends.”
Finklestein asked, “If that doesn’t put it all in focus, what else will?”
Both of the fired attorneys have hired Fort Lauderdale attorneys. Jason Blank is representing Sheres, and Richard L. Rosenbaum is representing Raticoff.
Raticoff and others maintain this is a free-speech issue, Finkelstein acknowledged.
“No, it’s not. When you as a public employee, even as a private employee, go on social media and make statements that interfere with the agency, the employer has a right to fire you,” he said. “If your anger is so strong that you must post these feelings, I understand. But then you can’t be a public defender.”
Finkelstein said Raticoff sent an officewide email in 2005 that was a racist attack on Muslims.
In response, Finkelstein wrote: “An email was sent out to everyone in this office that portrayed Muslims in a negative stereotypical way. I believe it was racist, insulting and hurtful. I apologize that our computer system was used to spread hate and intolerance, and my deepest heartfelt apologies to those of you who were personally, culturally or religiously offended.”