Major drama as real-life 'Bad Lieutenant' is sentenced

False arrest ordered by ex-BSO Lt. David Benjamin might be worst Rothstein-related crime of all

It's not every day you get courtroom drama as riveting as the stuff on television. But it happened on Monday, when a former top cop in the Broward Sheriff's Office was sentenced to five years in federal prison — and was publicly confronted by the woman whose false arrest he ordered.

After U.S. District Judge James Cohn imposed the maximum sentence on David Benjamin, the ex-BSO lieutenant was ordered to take off his jacket and tie by federal marshals. Then he was ordered to put his hands behind his back.

Marcy Romeo watched intently from the front row. As the handcuffs went on Benjamin, she could hear them clink and click shut, just as she heard the ones that went around her wrists five years ago. "It was closure," she said later.

There have been many disgraceful acts that have had their days of reckoning from the sordid saga known as the Scott Rothstein affair. But this might have been the most disgraceful of all.

This wasn't some con-man lawyer fleecing rich investors out of money with a Ponzi scheme. This wasn't Rothstein's accomplices cooking up phony documents or pretending to be bank executives or a Florida Bar official. This wasn't Rothstein's law partners playing games with campaign contributions, writing big checks and then illegally getting reimbursed by the boss.

This was worse. This was the movie "Bad Lieutenant" come to life. This was a cop betraying his badge — and the public he was supposed to serve and protect — by ordering the arrest of an innocent woman. All to curry favor with Rothstein and his attorney friend Doug Bates.

At the time of Romeo's bogus arrest on trumped-up prescription drug charges in 2009, Benjamin was in the high command of BSO — among former Sheriff Al Lamberti's top brass. And Romeo was a woman in the midst of a nasty divorce and child-custody battle with Bates.

Benjamin ordered an underling, Detective Jeff Poole, to arrest "that bitch" (his words according to Poole's account in court documents, although Benjamin disputed that during an apology Monday), so that Bates could gain the upper hand in the custody battle. Poole's day of reckoning before Judge Cohn comes Thursday.

Police have dangerous and often thankless jobs, but they also have tremendous responsibilities. They carry guns and handcuffs, and they have the right to use them when necessary. They are given great discretion and latitude in carrying out these duties.

But slapping a mother in handcuffs and wrongly taking her liberty — even if only for 18 hours — based on pure fiction is beyond comprehension. What's worse, the excuse Benjamin and Poole cooked up to arrest and jail Romeo — an unauthorized vial of pills — actually belonged to Romeo's autistic son.

He was in court on Monday, alongside his mother.

When they came out after the sentencing, Romeo said she felt compelled to confront Benjamin, even though she had never met him before. "I just spoke from my heart," she said. "If it stops one police officer from doing the wrong thing [in the future]...then it's worth it."

Benjamin copped to other misdeeds in his guilty plea, like harassing and threatening a Rothstein-connected prostitute, taking money from Rothstein and escorting him to a private jet when he fled to Morocco as the Ponzi scheme unraveled. But Romeo's false arrest was corruption at its worst, the powerful and arrogant picking on the weak and vulnerable.

I asked Romeo if she'd ever be able to trust the police again.

"No comment," she said.

mmayo@tribune.com; 954-356-4508

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