If you read the Orlando Sentinel, you probably know who Steven G. Mason is. If not, here's the short version: Mason is a lawyer with a propensity for taking controversial, high-profile cases and talking about them openly with reporters which we love. Mason is something of a media darling in this town, a sharp wit who has no problem sharing juicy quotes with those who make a living scribbling them down.
But Mason's gift for gab has annoyed two Orange County circuit court judges Jay Cohen and Frederick Lauten who phoned in complaints on April 4 to the Florida Bar and prompted an inquiry into whether Mason broke Bar rules against unfairly criticizing judges and juries, according to documents obtained by Orlando Weekly.
Specifically, the complaints center around two Sentinel stories. The first, written by Mark Schlueb April 2, came after Judge Cohen ruled that the city of Orlando's planned special election was legal. Mason represented the Orange County Democratic Party, which sought to toss the then-upcoming election.
"It's an illegal election," the Sentinel quoted Mason as saying. "We'll find some judges on the appellate court who aren't afraid of the political heat, and we're going to win this thing."
The implication that Cohen caved to political pressure apparently got under the judge's skin. "I don't know what went on in his mind," Mason says. "I can tell you honestly that I never had any intent, and that statement had nothing to do with his qualities as a judge or human being."
While he wasn't misquoted, Mason says Schlueb pulled those comments from a half-hour conversation that touched on everything from the ruling to a rant about city government. "You pick the quote that fits in with the context of the story," Mason says.
Neither Judge Cohen nor Judge Lauten who recently transferred to Osceola County, where he heads the criminal division could be reached by phone for this story.
The other story, written by Anthony Colarossi and published Feb. 12, came after another of Mason's clients, a former bingo-hall operator, lost a civil racketeering lawsuit. Mason expressed disbelief at the verdict because jurors were never told that his client had previously been cleared of all criminal charges.
"Unfortunately, this jury got absolutely buffaloed," Mason told Colarossi. "They got snookered, beyond snookered. I would like to see their faces when they find out another jury in this courthouse found these people not guilty of every single charge based on the exact same facts."
Neither Lauten nor Cohen was the judge on the case in question, and it's unclear why Lauten phoned in a complaint to the Bar.
But if Cohen's upset about being derided as a political coward, Lauten has a much deeper history with Mason. In 1988, Lauten was Mason's supervisor when he worked in the state attorney's office. Later, Mason became a well-known defense attorney. Before that, Lauten had prosecuted for the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation, the region's vice squad and an organization that frequently battled Mason's clients. When Lauten became a judge, Mason butted heads with him over the constitutionality of so-called "knock and talk" arrests and the legality of an MBI raid of exotic dance clubs a few years ago.
Mason has, over the years, also been the principal architect of an annual survey that asks prosecutors and defense lawyers to anonymously give their opinions about judges. The results can be brutal, and Mason gives the surveys to local media outlets, including Orlando Weekly. It's common knowledge that many judges aren't thrilled with the survey. In 2002, Lauten who rated highly in the survey said publishing the results "can be unfair, and it raises some ethical issues."
On April 14, the Bar fired off a letter to Mason, demanding a response to the complaint within 15 days. Specifically, the Bar wanted to know if Mason had been accurately and contextually quoted in the Sentinel. The Bar had convened a grievance committee, which acts like a grand jury in these matters and decides whether or not to carry the case over to a formal hearing, which ultimately could sanction Mason if he was found to have violated Bar association rules.
At issue here is Florida Bar Rule 4-8.2(a), which says: "A lawyer shall not make a statement that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge, mediator, arbitrator, adjudicatory officer, public legal officer, juror or member of the venire, or candidate for election or appointment to judicial or legal office."
Another Florida Bar rule, 4-8.4(d), says a lawyer shall not "engage in conduct in connection with the practice of law or in connection with the practice of law that is prejudicial to the administration of justice, including to knowingly, or through callous indifference, disparage, humiliate, or discriminate against litigants, jurors, witnesses, court personnel, or other lawyers on any basis, including, but not limited to, on account of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, national origin, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, age, socio-economic status, employment, or physical characteristics."
Mason first thought the complaints were lodged anonymously, because no one would tell him who filed them. That, however, would be against Bar rules as well, because any lawyer who files a grievance against another lawyer has to attach his or her name to it. Mason's initial response to the Bar dwelled on that point.
But it turns out the complaints weren't anonymous. Officially, the investigation began after the local Bar office received phone calls from Judges Cohen and Lauten complaining about the quotes in the Sentinel related to the election lawsuit. After that, Bar staffers pored over the Sentinel archives and dug up the racketeering story. Together, the stories formed the basis of the complaint.
Mason responded on several fronts. First, in a federal lawsuit filed against the Bar, he asked for a declaratory judgment, arguing that the Bar rules restricted his right to free speech and were thus unconstitutional. Then, in his first response to the Bar, he argued that he didn't break the rules, and that other lawyers had given much more slanderous quotes about public officials with impunity. For instance, after prosecutor Brad King dropped charges against Buddy Dyer, several big-shot attorneys, including Bill Frederick, Bill Sublette and William Sheaffer, lambasted King in print. Frederick, for example, said, "I cannot express my incredulity at the stupidity of this prosecutor."
That comment seems a lot more direct than anything Mason said. Thus, Mason argued, the Bar was unfairly targeting him especially considering the fact that the local Bar staff appeared to drop everything and chase down the complaint once the calls came in, he says.
But why him? Mason points to a federal lawsuit he brought against the Bar in the late 1990s over advertising. The Bar had complained about ads Mason ran in the Yellow Pages, saying they were improperly "self-laudatory." Mason sued, alleging the restrictions violated his First Amendment rights. After losing in district court, he appealed and won. The Bar had to pay his fees and costs.
"The Bar has a tendency to go on these crazy crusades," he says. "Do I think there may be some residual issues there? Hell, yes."
After Mason discovered the source of the complaint, he filed a motion to disqualify the Florida Bar from judging it on the grounds that he "has a reasonable fear that he will not be treated fairly by the Bar in this matter." In essence, Mason says the Bar tried to hide the source of the complaint from him, and that by accepting and acting upon "secret telephone calls from local jurists" the Bar had made itself a prejudiced player in the ordeal. Mason says he still doesn't know if the Lauten and Cohen calls came in together or independent of one another, or if the judges were complaining of a single perceived slight or many.
(Frances Brown-Lewis, the Bar lawyer handling the Mason case, did not return repeated phone calls by press time.)
True to his hell-raising nature, Mason sees a bigger picture. "I see it as an attack on the free press, I truly do. I think there is an institutional element that wants to inhibit lawyers from speaking candidly with the press, to make us robots, to sanitize everything. I see it as a form of elitism. What else could it be?"
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.