Union boss Browne, sister guilty
Jurors convicted Broward union chief Walter Browne of taking payments
from companies to keep their employees out of the union -- the National
Federation of Public and Private Employees.
By NOAH BIERMAN AND ERIKA BOLSTAD
THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT FINALLY took down Broward County's most powerful
labor leader Wednesday when a jury convicted Walter Browne of running
his union like an organized crime ring.
Browne, a bear of a man whose confident handshake gripped many of
Broward County's elite, sat slently as guilty verdicts were declared on
eight of 15 counts of racketeering and related charges.
Browne left the courtroom to smoke a cigarette and consult with his
lawyers, but declined to comment on the outcome.
The union boss has been under federal scrutiny for most of two decades,
beating off two previous attempts to throw him in prison while
cultivating close friendships with Broward's political and business elite.
This time, he was done in by receipts and details about fancy meals,
poker games and -- most significantly -- a pocketful of payoffs from
companies trying to keep their employees from joining the union.
Prosecutor Lawrence LaVecchio estimates federal sentencing guidelines
will mean eight to 10 years in prison for Browne and slightly less time
for his sister, Patricia Devaney, also convicted of racketeering and
eight other counts.
One of Browne's attorneys, Theresa Van Vliet, who plans an appeal, says
she thinks LaVecchio's estimates are on the high side.
LaVecchio said the government also will ask the court to order Browne
and his sister to forfeit more than $500,000 in cash.
U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez will decide that issue on or before
Aug. 18, when the two are scheduled for sentencing.
Jurors spent a week deliberating at the Miami federal courthouse. Jury
foreman John Sprague called Browne, 52, a "great union person." But
evidence and testimony showed that he was spending money on himself that
belonged to union members, said Sprague, a computer consultant from Bay
Jurors, who were seated since early April, heard details of Browne's
poker games in the Plantation headquarters of the National Federation of
Public and Private Employees, and extravagant lunches and trips on the
Union president Browne used dues from the 7,000-member union of school
custodians, city truck drivers and jail guards to pal around with
Broward's most influential politicians. Most damning, he accepted
hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees from companies whose
employees were potential union members.
Union members pay average dues of $300 to $350 a year.
Brown's biggest take: Hvide Marine Inc. (now called Seabulk
International) paid him $250,000. Prosectors said Browne should have
been negotiating with the company as an adversary -- not taking the
"Look at these documents," Assistant U.S. Attorney Julia Stiller
implored jurors at last Tuesday's closing arguments as she displayed
checks and expense reports on a projector.
They included a $556 lunch tab at Cafe Martorano in Fort LaudeRdale and
$678 for a meal at the now-defunct Burt & Jack's in Port Everglades.
"Their overriding goal was to line their own pockets," Stiller said.
Devaney, 55, who worked in Browne's office, embezzled $116,000 -- giving
herself raises and writing out checks to her daughter and husband and
forging their signatures.
Defense countered that Browne was a committed unionist whose legal
troubles resulted from political enemies and overzealous prosecutors.
His payments from private companies were legitimate compensation for
lobbying and consulting, argued Bruce Udolf and Van Vliet. Eating
expensive meals doesn't make him Tony Soprano, they said.
Prosecutors said Browne passed himself off as a labor consultant to
companies at Port Everglades, a private ambulance company and an auto
tag agency even though union officials are barred by federal law from
taking money from employers.
Devaney's lawyer, Michael Caruso, argued that she was a depressed
alcoholic, psychologically abused by her husband and addicted to gambling.
Browne still is technically in charge of the union, but LaVecchio said
federal law prohibits him from participating in any union activities for
at least 13 years.
"He built a very strong union in the federation, and I think even the
jury foreman recognized that," said Dan Reynolds, president of the
AFL-CIO in Broward.
The conviction reverberates throughout the Broward political
establishment. But whether Browne's conviction will taint his many
political friends remains to be seen.
Lori Parrish, who stood by Browne and donated money to his defense fund,
is giving up her County Commission seat to run for Broward County
Property Appraiser this fall. Parrish had dental surgery Wednesday,
according to a member of her staff, and did not return calls.
Browne's friendship with Parrish and her clout on the County Commission
made the union boss an especially effective lobbyist for the businesses
he represented, as well as union members.
Browne's reach was such that few elected officials could say they didn't
know him, especially Democrats, said Broward County Commissioner John
"He was a bigger-than-life character," Rodstrom said. ``I don't know
how you could be a Democratic politician and not know him. I think
there's probably a lot of elected officials who were close to him."
U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez said the verdict serves notice that if
people in power cheat, steal and abuse their positions, ``you will
eventually get caught."
Browne and his sister remain free pending appeals.
Associated Press contributed to this report.