South Florida

Judges who endorsed child welfare group in bid fight get Florida Supreme Court reprimand

Five former and current circuit judges, who sided with one organization in a competitive bid fight over a South Florida child welfare government contract, received a written reprimand from the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday.

In September 2018, Judges Marcia Caballero, Rosa Figarola, Teresa Pooler and Mavel Ruiz, along with Judge Cindy Lederman, who is now retired, wrote a letter to the Florida Department of Children and Families endorsing the group Our Kids in the re-bidding of a contract to serve foster kids in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. The contract was potentially worth $500 million.

The letter had no clear effect on the bitter process: The company that ultimately won the five-year contract in 2019, Citrus Health, or Citrus Family Health Network, was competing to unseat Our Kids as the chief provider of foster child services in Miami-Dade and Monroe.

According to the judicial opinion, the now-retired Lederman drafted the letter and recruited other judges to sign on in support of Our Kids and sent it to DCF on official judicial letterhead.

“We have worked with Our Kids and we have complete faith only in the Our Kids model of leadership. When you select the agency please keep our voices in mind,” the judges wrote in the letter.

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An investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission found that there was probable cause to believe Lederman and the rest of the judges violated several canons of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, including the preservation of impartiality and integrity of judges.

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“We agree with the JQC’s findings of fact and generally agree with the stipulated discipline” of a written reprimand, the Florida justices wrote. “Each respondent took responsibility for the misconduct and acknowledged that it should not have happened.”

The state’s high court also said the letter was ultimately “not intended to promote the financial interests of themselves or others,” and considered that all five judges had “otherwise unblemished disciplinary history.”

Herald reporter Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.

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