Dixie Dent says she expected working for Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Martin Zilber was going to be a challenge, one she welcomed.
But within weeks of being hired as his judicial assistant, she told NBC 6 Investigators, she sensed the judge was acting inappropriately.
Over the next 18 months, she would later tell the state Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC), she witnessed him not showing up for work, requiring her and a bailiff to do personal tasks and endure what she said was a rant from the judge after she informed him she was pregnant.
Having had previous miscarriages, she said she needed the job's health benefits and endured his behavior - even when he required her to wheel his heavy chair up several floors to his courtroom bench while she was pregnant, which Zilber admitted doing.
"I had to put up with it," she said in an exclusive interview, "but what I saw, (was) injustice to the constituents of Miami-Dade County."
In the end, the JQC found probable cause to support most of her allegations and Zilber last week entered into a stipulation where he admitted his behavior was “intemperate, inappropriate and damaged the public’s perception of the judiciary.”
He also agreed to the recommended discipline: a 60-day suspension without pay from his $161,000-a-year job and a $30,000 fine, calculated to cover the proceeds of 51 days he was absent from the courthouse without notifying court administration he was taking leave.
A call to the judge's chambers seeking his comment on the matter was not returned. But attorney Deborah Baker, who said she spoke to Zilber's lawyer after NBC 6 inquired of the judge, volunteered that she had "never seen him treat a woman any different than a man" and, as far as she could tell from years of practicing before him, there "wasn't a sexist bone in his body."
In recommending the discipline to the Florida Supreme Court, the JQC notes Zilber "immediately accepted responsibility (and) expressed remorse for his intemperate treatment and misuse of his court staff."
He admitted requiring his staff to do more than help run the courtroom, including at times doing his online shopping, registering his car, working on his scrap book and picking up his Art Basel tickets.
Dent said it did not take her long to realize "he wasn’t being honest with his time sheet. It was made very clear to me that the most important thing was to hold up the appearance that he was there, but in reality that wasn’t happening."
Not there on many Mondays and Fridays, she said, and not there for a week last August when he vacationed in Malibu without taking leave, the judge subsequently admitted, though he said he did do some work while in California.
"There’s a lot of good judges on the bench who don't behave this way, and it’s guys like this that are abusing their power, taking advantage of people like Dixie," said attorney Bruce Jacobs, who has his own long-running beef with the judge over contentious foreclosure litigation.
He is helping Dent challenge the deal Zilber reached with the JQC, which only recommends discipline to the state Supreme Court, which has final say.
"We’re asking that the Florida Supreme Court reject the JQC’s recommendation, which we think is a slap on the wrist, and we want him removed from the bench and disbarred," Jacobs said.
Dent said she is glad he is accepting responsibility, but one personal attack, she said, still hurts.
"The moment I told him I was pregnant, he said, 'Oh geez. This is such an inconvenience. This is going to ruin all my plans. This is the worst possible time for you to be pregnant,'" she recalled.
Soon after, Zilber was "requiring his pregnant JA to wheel his chair up several floors to the courtroom and then lift it onto the dais prior to hearings," the JQC found and Zilber admitted, later telling an investigator he made other arrangements "once the issue was brought to his attention."
"I simply could not do it because it was so heavy and I wasn’t going to risk the baby," Dent said.
After having her daughter and returning from leave, Dent said the final straw came in August when Zilber berated her over a Zoom session witnessed by her other children.
Her family, she said, told her, "'You know, we're going to figure it out. We’re going to figure it out together, but you’re going to resign because you should not be subjected to this and the kids should not continue seeing this.'"
She submitted her resignation the next day.