A mayor was accused of sexual assault. He won’t be charged, but a lawsuit continues
Pembroke Pines Mayor Frank Ortis is something of an institution in South Broward. He was first elected to the City Commission in 1996, became mayor in 2004 and has been reelected three times, twice unopposed.
Now, as Ortis campaigns for what he says could be his final term at age 76, he faces not only his biggest political challenge yet from Commissioner Angelo Castillo, but also an allegation of sexual assault in a civil lawsuit that will play out in Broward County court as the March election approaches.
A former employee at a Pembroke Pines restaurant that Ortis co-owns, Mayor’s Cafe & Bagel Emporium, says the mayor sexually assaulted her in his car in April 2016 and then harassed her repeatedly at work. The mayor claims the incidents never happened and is counter-suing for defamation.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated the claims after the accuser, Catherine Benjamin, reported them to Pembroke Pines police in late 2017. The department said last October that it couldn’t find enough evidence to charge him with a crime.
But Benjamin, 45, is pushing ahead with the civil suit, which she filed in March 2018.
She says that shortly after she was hired as a cashier at the restaurant, Ortis asked her to meet him in the parking lot of nearby Pembroke Lakes Golf and Racquet Club after her shift ended. After Ortis told her to get into his car, she says, Ortis repeatedly tried to initiate a sexual encounter.
According to the complaint, Ortis grabbed Benjamin’s hand and forced it onto his pants. He then tried to unbuckle his pants and pull her hand back onto his groin, the complaint says, as Benjamin moved her hand away. She says Ortis then tried to unbuckle her pants, touched one of her breasts, and “forced his tongue into her mouth.”
Benjamin says she pulled away multiple times and kept asking Ortis “why he was doing this.”
“I was in complete shock. I froze,” Benjamin told the Miami Herald in an interview this week. “I just kept saying that: ‘Why are you doing this?’ It was very traumatic. I just remember wanting to get out of the car.”
Ortis told the Herald last week that the claims were entirely fabricated. Asked why Benjamin would make false accusations against him, Ortis said he believes she is “just not stable.”
He added that FDLE “completely exonerated [him] of any wrongdoing.”
“I just know that I’m innocent,” Ortis said.
After Benjamin’s lawsuit was filed, Ortis produced travel documents showing he was in Washington, D.C., for business on April 19, 2016, the day Benjamin initially said the assault took place. In an amended complaint, she said she incorrectly recalled the date and that the incident had actually taken place a week earlier.
There has yet to be a court hearing in the civil suit almost 21 months after it was filed. A trial has not been scheduled.
The lawsuit focuses on the alleged incident in the mayor’s car, but Benjamin’s report to local police and the subsequent FDLE investigation also delved into her claims about Ortis’ behavior at his restaurant.
The November 2017 police report says that, when Benjamin returned to work after the incident in the car, Ortis began asking her crude questions, touching her inappropriately, and pressuring her to send him nude pictures of herself.
Benjamin told police that Ortis asked her, “Do you want to have anal sex?” and told her, “You have nice tits.” She also said that, in the narrow area behind the counter at the cafe, Ortis would sometimes “grab her buttocks.”
The police report says Benjamin “was afraid to confront Ortis because she did not want to lose her job.”
Ortis’ counterclaim says Benjamin posted defamatory reviews of Mayor’s Cafe online that referred to Ortis’ inappropriate behavior.
In a Google review, according to court documents, Benjamin wrote: “mayor is too busy sexually harassing his female employees.” On Yelp, Benjamin wrote a comment referencing Ortis and the #MeToo movement.
These statements, Ortis’ counterclaim says, “were intended to wrongfully extract monies from [Ortis], who [Benjamin] knew was a public figure in the community and could potentially be harmed by the false and salacious allegations.”
Ortis’ attorney, David DiPietro, told the Herald: “We think the whole thing is a sham. We think it was fabricated from the get-go.”
DiPietro said he wasn’t aware of any political motivations that Benjamin might have, but he said he believed the allegations would be “used politically.”
Still, they have yet to generate much buzz in Pembroke Pines. The existence of the lawsuit was reported by floridapolitics.com in June, but the case has not received other media attention.
Castillo, Ortis’ lone challenger so far for the March election, has steered clear of the allegations. He told the Herald he was “shocked” when he learned of them and that they should be taken seriously, but he didn’t comment further.
“I don’t want to get into his legal issues,” Castillo said. “He’ll have his day in court. I’ll focus on my campaign.”
In an October 2018 close-out memorandum detailing the FDLE investigation, Broward County Assistant State Attorney Christopher Killoran said investigators couldn’t find enough evidence to corroborate Benjamin’s claims.
Investigators interviewed Benjamin’s boyfriend, who said Benjamin relayed to him that Ortis “constantly harassed her and touched her.”
A forensic analysis of the boyfriend’s phone turned up two relevant text messages, including one on an unspecified date in which Benjamin said she was “filing sexual harassment on [the] mayor.”
In another message from March 17, 2017, Benjamin told her boyfriend: “I didn’t tell u mayor pulled out his [expletive] and grabbed my hand and put it on his [expletive] and I pulled it off and got so fast out his car.”
Killoran said the fact that the message was sent almost a year after the alleged incident “is not an issue.” Rather, he wrote, the two text messages were not enough to corroborate Benjamin’s testimony that she had “repeatedly” told her boyfriend about the mayor’s behavior.
“Both the lack of text messages reflecting this coupled with only one text being sent 11 months later contradicts her testimony,” Killoran wrote.
FDLE investigators also took statements from at least three female employees and a manager at Mayor’s Cafe. According to the close-out memo, none of them said they had seen inappropriate behavior by Ortis.
Several employees, however, told investigators they knew Benjamin had once sent a nude photo to Ortis and the manager.
Ortis acknowledged that he received a nude photo from Benjamin, but he said it was unsolicited. He told investigators that he and Benjamin “were friendly and texted,” but that nothing inappropriate ever happened.
Benjamin told police that Ortis was “constantly pressuring her” to send him nude photos and that he persisted even after she said no. She said she finally sent him a picture of herself in a bathing suit because she was afraid of losing her job.
The police report says Benjamin believes she was ultimately fired from the restaurant in June 2016 because she “rebuffed Ortis’ sexual advances.”
After Benjamin’s boyfriend visited the restaurant one day, Ortis asked her if the man was her boyfriend and asked a crude question about their relationship, according to the police report. She says she was fired the next time she showed up for work when the manager claimed $70 had gone missing from her cash drawer.
Benjamin denied taking any money from the restaurant and said she thought the manager was acting at Ortis’ direction. Ortis told investigators that wasn’t true and that he briefly rehired Benjamin “because he felt sorry for her,” but that she put in her notice a week later.
Benjamin also told police she was afraid to report the abuse for months because she had family members who work for the Pembroke Pines Police Department and didn’t want Ortis to retaliate against them. Every time she drove past the department, the police report says, “she tried to get up the courage to file a police report.”
The report says Benjamin told police she was influenced by the #MeToo movement in her decision to come forward.
“Benjamin stated that the courage that the other victims showed in coming forward and reporting their abuse, gave her the courage to finally come forward,” the report says.
Benjamin also filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in March 2017, according to the police report. An EEOC spokesperson said the agency doesn’t comment on the complaints it receives.
Ortis said that, in his more than 20 years in office, he has never faced any complaints for harassment. A copy of his personnel file obtained by the Herald through a public records request did not include any complaints.
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