Fired and falsely accused, former Broward sheriff’s employee fights back

Rafael Olmeda, South Florida Sun Sentinel
·2 min read

Jennifer Bakowski was not just fired.

In October 2012, Broward sheriff’s deputies showed up at her hotel room door and demanded to be let in, she says.

Bakowski was a human resources manager at the Broward Sheriff’s Office, and officials were accusing her of using her position to invent phantom employees and collect their benefits. Later, it would be determined no money was missing. Later, it would be determined no crime was committed.

Bakowski filed a lawsuit in 2015 to clear her name, accusing the Sheriff’s Office of false imprisonment, slander, false arrest, intentional infliction of emotional distress and malicious prosecution. This week, Broward Circuit Judge Martin Bidwill is weighing another bid by the Sheriff’s Office to end the case by ruling against Bakowski.

“But they won’t let it go because they don’t want to be held accountable,” Bakowski said.

At the Orlando hotel room, the deputies flashed their badges to get Bakowski’s room number from the hotel, then confiscated the phone and laptop she took with her to a technology symposium. They wouldn’t let her leave, she said, and would not let her arrange for a ride home.

“They watched me go to the bathroom,” she said.

But Bakowski was never convicted. She was never charged. She was never arrested, formally. The sheriff’s office still had put her in the back of a car, driving her home and publicly accusing her of being a thief.

When prosecutors reviewed the case less than a year later, they determined no crime was committed. Bakowski’s name was cleared. But, she says, her reputation was not.

By the time Bakowski was able to file her lawsuit, the elected sheriff who oversaw the original accusation, Al Lamberti, was out of office. Scott Israel, who took office in early 2013, declined to make a deal to resolve the case. When Lamberti was removed from office in 2019 and replaced with current Sheriff Gregory Tony, the case still continued.

“I sent Tony a letter when he got in,” said Bakowski, 51. “I told him BSO has spent more money fighting this case than they would to resolve it.”

Florida law protects police agencies from civil liability in making accusations that later turn out to be false, said Seth Haimovitch, the lawyer representing the Sheriff’s Office.

But Bakowski’s lawyer, Tonja Haddad Coleman, said the immunity should not apply in this case.

“Everyone has conceded that there was never any money missing,” Haddad said. “They drove to Orlando without a warrant. They used their badges to get her hotel room number. They pushed their way into her room.”

Bidwill gave no indication when he would rule.