Over a million dollars a year is going through the Fort Lauderdale, Florida Sheriff's Office to one law firm without any accounting or monitoring whatsoever. Where is this money going?

An article in the 1/7/98 electronic edition of the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Sun-sentinel by staff writer Jay Weaver.

  1. In a cutthroat legal world where attorneys stoop to radio, television and newspaper advertising for clients, Charles T. Whitelock is one lucky lawyer.

  2. Since 1993, he and his Fort Lauderdale law firm have collected more than $5 million in fees from their biggest client -- the Broward Sheriff's Office.

  3. And here's the sweetest part of the deal: Whitelock and his associates are the only ones who check if the firm's time billed to BSO jibes with work done for the agency. A key BSO administrator who signs off on the firm's bills before payment says he just makes sure work hours and charges add up correctly. He acknowledges that BSO management has a scant understanding of what those thousands of hours of work are for. "I have never asked Mr. Whitelock or any of his attorneys to show me case files to perform some type of quality control of his bills. That's not my function," said Dale Adams, executive assistant to BSO's chief of staff, who checks the bills before submitting them to the agency's finance division for payment. "As far as I know, it's an honor system."

  4. Whitelock, however, doesn't see it that way. He says BSO officials occasionally question his firm's charges and he revises them. Whitelock seemed incredulous over Adams' comments. "If they don't know about their cases, who would know about them?" said Whitelock, who has an office in the sheriff's office but is not an employee. "The lawyers (in my firm) interact with BSO all day long."

  5. The agency's apparent lack of oversight is bad policy that could leave room for overbilling, says Florida Taxwatch, a Tallahassee-based group that keeps an eye on public spending.

  6. "These checks and balances are essential to make sure the work performed is properly billed," said Dominic Calabro, the group's president. "As it is now, no verification exists to ensure that when they're billed 450 hours a month (by Whitelock's firm), the sheriff's office has received the benefit and the taxpayer has received the benefit of that work."

  7. Broward County Auditor Norman Thabit agreed. "The oversight of that office is deficient," he said. "It's too much money not to have someone independent go in and watch over it." But Adams said a BSO system of checks and balances has never existed because of Whitelock's close relationship with Sheriff Ron Cochran, who died of cancer in September. Whitelock, a former policeman-turned-attorney made his reputation defending cops in labor cases.

  8. Whitelock, his family and his law partners were among Cochran's biggest political supporters in his successful bid for sheriff in 1992 and again in 1996.

  9. Cochran cleaned the house left behind by former Sheriff Nick Navarro, trimming about 70 BSO employees and ending his policy of dishing out litigation and other legal services to a variety of lawyers. Cochran's supporters, including Whitelock, described the policy as a patronage system that rewarded attorneys who threw their political support behind Navarro.

  10. Navarro said that during his two terms as sheriff, he primarily used three in-house attorneys and farmed out other work, mostly confiscation cases, to other lawyers. He also said he used the Florida Sheriff's Association for liability insurance cases. Navarro said Whitelock's criticism of his legal department is a broken record of lies.

  11. "There is one man over there (at BSO) who has become a millionaire and who has been allowed to do this with total impunity," Navarro said. "I'm a taxpayer and I resent it." Ott Cefkin, a BSO spokesman who supported Cochran's campaigns for sheriff, defended his late boss' decision to use only Whitelock. "The whole history of this agency was everything (legal) went outside," Cefkin said. "Ron asked why. Private industry doesn't work that way. So he brought everything inside (under Whitelock). Is there more continuity? Yes. Is it more cost-effective? Yes."

  12. In the past fiscal year, Whitelock and his law firm collected legal fees totaling $1.2 million from BSO, according to records. Navarro's legal services cost at least a half million dollars more during 1992, his last year as sheriff, Whitelock estimated. But BSO's finance department said there is no way to verify the information because of incomplete records.

  13. When Cochran took over at BSO, Whitelock and his law firm -- Whitelock, Soloff, Rodriguez & Williams -- received two generous contracts from BSO. (His firm is now called Whitelock & Williams.) Whitelock's in-house contract pays him and his legal staff of four attorneys at BSO a monthly retainer of $39,580 -- totaling almost $475,000 annually. The sheriff's office also foots the bill for four executive secretaries, one administrative secretary and a judicial docket clerk.

  14. The Whitelock firm's legal work includes advising the sheriff and his management team, representing the sheriff in lawsuits and other court issues, preparing contracts and leases, and handling all confiscation and forefeiture litigation. The sheriff's office operates the county jails and oversees public safety in Broward's unincorporated areas and six cities. Whitelock's second contract with BSO empowers his law firm to handle all other litigation, including personnel and labor disputes, that had been referred to various attorneys before Cochran became sheriff.

  15. The firm's hourly rate for those services is $125. This contract has generated nearly $655,000 in legal fees and expenses for Whitelock's firm during fiscal 1997. Those are the invoices that face little scrutiny by BSO management.

  16. The only BSO legal work not controlled by Whitelock's firm is liability insurance cases, handled by the sheriff's risk management division. But even there, Whitelock's firm picked up numerous cases this past year, generating $73,074.

  17. Only a handful of other private lawyers got any referral business directly from Whitelock during the past year, earning a few thousand dollars in fees.

  18. For the foreseeable future, it doesn't appear Whitelock will be sharing much more of the sheriff's legal largess with any other firms. One month before Cochran underwent brain surgery last February, he and Whitelock agreed to extend his contracts for another four years -- not for two years, as originally stipulated.

  19. Unless the winner of a special sheriff's election next November tries to break that extended agreement, Whitelock will continue representing BSO almost exclusively through the year 2000.

  20. Sun-Sentinel Copyright (c) 1998, Sun-Sentinel Company and South Florida Interactive, Inc.

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