Brenda Forman.
Brenda Forman. (Melanie Bell)

Court administrators are rarely the center of attention or controversy—until now.

Broward County Clerk of Courts Brenda D. Forman is at the heart of legal industry intrigue about her job qualifications, ethics, failing marriage to ex-clerk Howard Forman and, more subtly, her race.

Brenda Forman is Broward’s first black female clerk. She won the job in November in a surprise victory over favorite Mitchell Ceasar, the former Broward Democratic Party chief. Her four-year term began in January, but critics seem intent on ousting her over claims she’s unqualified for the $170,000-a-year job. She’s drawn anonymous criticism from people who’ve used racist phrases like “hood rat” to describe her.

“I’ve never heard so much smack about a clerk,” said Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein.

A key sticking point for Brenda Forman is the specter of unethical behavior in both her personal and professional lives based on an ugly divorce and her handling of a foreclosure lawsuit and bankruptcy case.

In her public role, the dominant question has been whether the clerk—a public official sworn to safeguard judicial records—can engage in private litigation without disclosing her identity to the court and opposing parties. Second, critics ask if she needs to recuse herself from handling documents filed in her own suits.

“There is actually no case law on this,” said Palm Beach Clerk & Comptroller Sharon Bock, who litigated her own divorce in the circuit court where she works. “What there has been, though, are cases where clerks have personal issues similar to Mrs. Forman’s—divorce, foreclosure, other civil lawsuits that are not tied to their job. … The court does not see a conflict at all, and in fact there is no case law that supports a universal recusal.”

‘I Wanted Someone Strong’

Allegations of impropriety stem in part from a foreclosure lawsuit by Nationstar Mortgage LLC against Forman, using her maiden name, Brenda Dixon Jenkins, and Harris, her surname from a former marriage.

The case started in 2012, more than four years before she took office. It also preceded her marriage to Howard Forman, now her estranged husband who preceded her in the job and served as Broward clerk for about 16 years.

The foreclosure involved a property in Davie, which Brenda Forman owned with her ex-husband, Calvin Harris.

Brenda Forman did not appear for a hearing during the court proceedings and instead sent a proxy—a move critics say was designed to cloak her involvement in the case while she served as clerk of courts. But she did participate in the litigation. Court records show she personally filed at least one document under her maiden name, Brenda D. Jenkins, on May 10—years after she married Howard Forman, whose name she invoked during her campaign.

“Asking for more time,” she wrote in the filing objecting to the foreclosure sale. “My daughter just getting over breast cancer. Want to shortsale the property. Please grant me this motion.”

A courthouse official noted the signature: “She signed off on her own foreclosure property as ‘Brenda Forman, clerk,’ and a few days later appealed it as ‘Brenda Dixon Jenkins.’ ”

Forman lost the case, and the property sold at a court-ordered sale. She and Howard Forman shared the Davie house for a brief period while their marital home underwent renovations.

Critics say the foreclosure and a personal bankruptcy point to Brenda Forman’s inability to direct her office’s multimillion-dollar budget.

“I wanted someone strong in there,” said Christine Rodriguez, a former Broward resident who in July filed a complaint against Brenda Forman with the Florida Commission on Ethics. “I just didn’t think she had the capability. I’m happy for her family … but that doesn’t mean I think she’s right for the job.”

Rodriguez alleged Forman fraudulently hid a mortgage on the Davie property during bankruptcy proceedings in 2012 to avoid surrendering the house to her creditor.

The commission issued a public report and order dismissing the complaint on Aug. 2. It found Rodriguez missed the five-year statute of limitations to file the ethics complaint and failed to show Forman “corruptly” misused her public office.

“The complaint lacks any factual, nonconclusory allegation that the respondent used her official position in any capacity in order to further a special private benefit for herself or for another connected to her in a private capacity,” the commission ruled.

Rodriguez is gearing to file a second complaint, this time alleging Forman falsely listed liabilities as assets in her pre-election financial disclosure.

“It’s not really to nitpick, but to make sure that everyone is on the up-and-up,” she said.

‘Worst Nightmare’

Meanwhile, the courthouse is abuzz with rumors Brenda Forman flaunts her new position, insisting her staff address her as Madame Clerk. She once held a secretarial position in the courthouse before marrying her boss. Critics describe her as a manipulative woman with no college degree, who used her husband and his influence to rise through the ranks. At least two senior-level employees left the office afterward.

Other courthouse employees paint a different picture.

“I think her staff has got the worst nightmare on their hands,” one official said on condition of anonymity. “You have a low-level employee who used to hang out with them and knew all their secrets. All of a sudden that person gets elevated and becomes the boss. … She knows who was in the kitchen badmouthing the judge, and she doesn’t tolerate that. That’s the nightmare that they’re dealing with.”

Brenda Forman declined requests for an interview about her professional performance and claims in the divorce documents that she abused her estranged husband.

Howard Forman, 71, is a former state senator who served other public positions before becoming Broward’s clerk in 2001. He developed a reputation as an advocate for social justice and civil rights.

He filed for divorce in March after about four years of marriage, claiming his wife physically and mentally abused him, tampered with his medication, withheld his vehicle and denied him access to real estate and Social Security income.

“I’m retired, and life is going on,” said Howard Forman, who now lives apart from his spouse. “I feel stronger mentally now than I have in years.”

Lobbyist and political consultant Judy Stern is a longtime friend of Howard Forman.

“I am so proud and so happy to see Howard being back to the healthy Howard that I knew for all these years, watching him laugh and smile,” said Stern, who has known the retired politician for about 41 years.  “I am so glad to have Howard back in my life.”

Brenda Forman, 58, meanwhile claimed her husband suffers from dementia and asked the court to appoint her as his legal guardian. The couple’s divorce is pending, but she requested a change of venue to Miami-Dade to avoid her husband’s influence and connections in Broward.

“It’s very possible that what happened between (Brenda) and Howard has an innocent explanation,” Finkelstein said. “But there seems to be an awful lot of fuel behind the fire in the negative comments about her. She is either the victim of social gossip-mongering, or she did some bad things.”