BY TODD WRIGHT twright@MiamiHerald.com
Gary Ostrow's candidacy to become Broward's new public defender has gotten off to a bumpy start and now faces a new legal hurdle.
A former client's family is suing Ostrow for allegedly lying about his qualifications to represent their son in a Miami-Dade County death penalty case.
The lawsuit comes two weeks after Ostrow was arrested on cocaine possession charges in Tallahassee, which he received while filing to run against incumbent public defender Howard Finkelstein.
The Perez family claims they paid Ostrow $57,000 to defend their son, Mario Perez, in a death penalty case, even though he was not state-certified to handle such cases.
He told the family he was qualified, the lawsuit alleges.
Ostrow ''knew that these representations were false and they were intentionally made to induce'' the Perez family to hire him, states the lawsuit, which was filed in Broward County Circuit Court earlier this week.
Ostrow said the family is trying to take advantage of the negative publicity he received because of his drug arrest.
'It's a `kick me while I am down' routine. It's absolute crap,'' he said. ``I went out of my way and above and beyond for this kid. The court found me qualified and I was qualified from the beginning.''
The Florida Supreme Court's guidelines require attorneys in death penalty cases to have at least handled two death penalty cases through to the verdict and have a certain amount of experience in capital crime cases.
Ostrow said the rule was meant to apply to public defenders who work death penalty cases, not private attorneys.
''Anybody has a right to the council of their choice,'' he said.
The lawsuit also claims Ostrow illegally broke the business agreement, defrauded the family, and failed to provide receipts for his work.
The family, which lives in Hollywood, is seeking an undetermined amount in damages.
''They feel he lied to them,'' said Wayne Koppel, the attorney representing the family. ``These people trusted him so they kept paying him because they were trying to keep their son off Death Row. He took advantage of them.''
Miami-Dade prosecutors and Circuit Judge Rosa Rodriguez also appeared concerned about Ostrow's qualifications, according to court documents.
Ostrow was hired by the family in January 2007 after Perez, 20, was arrested in connection with the shooting death of a man at a Hialeah gas station the month before.
Ostrow, who has practiced law for 26 years, agreed to take the case for $100,000.
The Miami-Dade state attorney's office did not initially file a motion to seek the death penalty, but in April, prosecutors said that if convicted, they would seek the death penalty.
That's when Perez's family first heard that Ostrow might not be qualified to defend their son, said Oscar Perez, Mario's brother-in-law.
''We were all surprised. He used to always tell us he was overqualified,'' he said. ``He kept asking for money and asking for money. It was pretty frustrating to hear the judge say he wasn't qualified for the case.''
Assistant State Prosecutor Audrey Frank-Aponte filed several motions asking Rodriguez to investigate Ostrow's qualifications to represent Perez.
Rodriguez required Ostrow to show proof he had worked on death penalty cases before.
There was no record of him working on such a case in Broward or Miami-Dade.
Still, Ostrow continued to work on the case.
Between May and October, Ostrow asked the family for at least $30,000 for work he was doing on the case, Oscar Perez said.
''I met with the family for untold hours,'' Ostrow said. ``I can't tell you how much time was spent with the family, let alone fighting with the state to stop the death penalty.''
At the very least, a private investigator should have been hired and other, more crucial witnesses should have been interviewed in 11 months, said Russell Williams, one of the attorneys now working the Perez case.
Ostrow said he was never formally fired by the family. He was cleared to handle death penalty cases in November, around the same time the family hired new attorneys.
''I don't see anything near $57,000 worth of work,'' Williams said ``There are things we still have to request from the state that he should have done. As far as I can tell, the family got knocked off by an attorney for almost a year who did nothing.''
The family tried to get some of the money -- about $45,000 -- back from Ostrow, but was rebuffed repeatedly.
It wasn't until published reports of Ostrow saying he would pledge $200,000 of his own money to fuel his election campaign that the family decided to sue.
The family collected money from several relatives and refinanced their house to pay Ostrow, Koppel said.
''This is a blue-collar family that pooled their money to try to save a family member,'' he said. ``And Ostrow took advantage of it.''