by Irvin Muchnick
Yesterday a Florida judge concluded my state public records lawsuit against the City of Fort Lauderdale by ordering the reversal of two redactions in previously released documents. One of those redactions – a couple of lines in an email by Stu Marvin, manager of the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex at the time of a 2004 altercation between international human trafficker swim coach Alex Pussieldi and his former Mexican ward – is revealing and significant. More on that below.
There are two broad takeaways from this episode. First, the cover-ups of sexual abuse within the swimming establishment, which are now a focus of Congress and the FBI, continue to unravel. There is only one direction the arrow is pointing, and it is not toward exoneration of already disgraced USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus and his army of henchpersons, lobbyists, and PR buffoons.
The other takeaway is that even the best-intentioned public information law has limits. In our case, Judge John B. Bowman simply read the disputed documents and issued a brief order, without narrative or legal explanation. It’s hard to fathom a corrective to excessive secrecy in government files that can overcome this problem; after all, legitimate secrecy must remain secret (for example, to protect privacy where the invasion thereof is not warranted).
But there is a corollary here, and I state it again: The cover-up in Fort Lauderdale goes beyond the lines and paragraphs whited-out here and there in the documents already produced. The cover-up also includes the many documents the city claims it cannot produce. As Edward Mullins and Regan Kruse, my fine attorneys at Astigarraga Davis, have explained to me, the public records act can’t force the unvanishing of vanished papers. Here, the city says a search of its files simply did not find the packet of materials widely publicized as having been circulated to city commissioners in 2007, or full statement attachments to summaries in police reports.
The important reversed redaction consists of two lines of an email by Stu Marvin to Ernest Burkeen, then his boss at the Fort Lauderdale Parks & Recreation Department. The new version of the public document has been uploaded to http://muchnick.net/marvintoburkeen.pdf.
The sentence that is now unredacted is the one starting on line 4:
“In my conversations with both of them, nothing was ever said about it being of a sexual nature.”
“Both of them” are Alex Pussieldi and his swimmer Roberto Cabrera Paredes. Three days earlier, Pussieldi and Cabrera Paredes had gotten into an argument on the pool deck, and the former had physically battered the latter.
“In his conversations” with the parties of that altercation, city bureaucrat Marvin learned of nothing “of a sexual nature.”
But Marvin and the Fort Lauderdale police full well knew that there was plenty “of a sexual nature” in the background of the incident. Cabrera Paredes and several third parties – including two other assistant coaches, plus the wife of one of the coaches – had already told city officials and police and Fort Lauderdale Swim Team owner and head coach Jack Nelson all about “it.”
Specifically: The swimmer was struck by his coach because he refused to be supervised by him. And the reason Roberto Cabrera Paredes insisted on keeping his distance from Alex Pussieldi was that more than two years earlier, when the young man was 17 years old and living in the home of Pussieldi – who was his legal guardian – Roberto discovered that Pussieldi was peeping on him through a hidden videotaping system inside the bathroom wall. Cabrera Paredes and some of Pussieldi’s other tenants, teen swimmers and foreign nationals all, then came upon a collection of Pussieldi’s videos of his own sex with underage boys.
“Nothing was ever said about it being of a sexual nature,” indeed.
Further down the page of this document, Judge Bowman retained the redaction of an entire email from then acting city manager Alan Silva to Parks & Rec director Burkeen. One can speculate (but not prove) that here a city official didn’t make the mistake their flunky Marvin made above – that is, Silva was detailed enough in his description that a pesky journalist later could not penetrate a claim that the passage was exempted from disclosure under state law because it gave away the identity of a victim of sexual abuse.
Sometimes cover-ups are exposed by uncovering. Other times cover-ups are exposed by uncovering that they are still covered up. And so it is with the seedy and opaque Pussieldi files in Fort Lauderdale.