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Florida lawmaker under investigation for bizarre texts

Federal agents are investigating Florida House Rep. Richard Steinberg for sending a series of suggestive and harassing text messages to a married Miami female prosecutor, court records show.

The dozens of messages, sent over the course of more than three months last fall, were sent from a phone that used software to disguise the number. The victim, Assistant U.S. Attorney Marlene Fernandez-Karavetsos, repeatedly begged the anonymous sender to leave her alone.

When U.S. Secret Service investigators traced the Yahoo screen name, "itsjustme24680," it led to a phone and home Internet account registered to Steinberg, a former Miami Beach commissioner whom Fernandez-Karavetsos knew only professionally.

Late Wednesday, Steinberg — in response to a request for comment from the Miami Herald — admitted in an email that he was behind the messages.

"I acknowledge and take full responsibility for sending inappropriate and unsolicited messages to Mrs. Marlene Fernandez-Karavetsos, whom I have known for more than 15 years. I deeply regret and wholeheartedly apologize for the disrespect that I have shown her, her husband and my constituents," he said through a spokesman.

"Most importantly, words cannot express how sorry I am to my wife, for the disrespect I have shown her, and my entire family."

According to a search warrant filed late last month in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, Steinberg is suspected of engaging in stalking, a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison. It was not clear Wednesday whether investigators had found evidence of inappropriate messages to other women.

Steinberg, 39, has not been charged. He was in Tallahassee on Wednesday for the 2012 legislative session.

Voters elected Steinberg, a Democrat, to the House in 2008 after he spent seven years as a commissioner in Miami Beach. A lawyer since 1998, Steinberg is married with one child.

Fernandez-Karavetsos, 37, works in the general litigation unit of Miami's U.S. Attorney's Office. She is married to federal prosecutor George Karavetsos, 39, who heads the office's narcotics section. The couple declined to comment.

After investigators verified that Steinberg had apparently accessed the Yahoo account, they returned to talk to Fernandez-Karavetsos. She "confirmed that she knows the subject in a professional non-intimate way. … (She) indicated that the messages have caused her substantial emotional distress and serve no legitimate purpose," according to the search warrant.

The investigation started in August, when Fernandez-Karavetsos reported the text messages to authorities. Sent from the screen name "itsjustme24680," the messages struck a creepy tone.

"Sexxxy mama?" the first one read.

"How do I know you?" replied Fernandez-Karavetsos.

The sender declined to identify himself.

"Leave me alone," she texted back.

"Is that anyway to treat a friend? LOL," the sender replied.

Fernandez-Karavetsos, a new mother, tried to block the sender, to no avail.

Over the next few weeks, the anonymous sender repeatedly sent her messages that included: "How's motherhood?" and "getting any sleep?" and asking about the well-being of her baby son — even naming the infant.

Fernandez-Karavetsos repeatedly asked the sender to stop messaging her or identify himself.

"Considering we're both married parents, probably best I not answer that at this point," the person wrote back.

Fernandez-Karavetsos provided investigators with screen shots of the exchanges from her phone.

According to the search warrant, the sender's real phone number did not show up on the recipient's caller ID.

Miami Beach Detective Ricardo Arias, who is attached to the Secret Service's Electronic Crimes Task Force, discovered that the number displayed belonged to Yahoo's messaging service. The account, created in September 2009, was registered to a fake name: "Mr. Just Me."

A subpoena revealed that during the time period in which the messages were sent to Fernandez-Karavetsos, the Yahoo account was accessed by an Atlantic Broadband Internet account registered to Steinberg's home address, a South Beach condo owned by the politician.

Another device also accessed the Yahoo account through a Sprint Nextel account registered to Steinberg through his law office in Miami Beach, the search warrant said.

Miami Herald staff writers Jay Weaver and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

Florida lawmaker under investigation for bizarre texts 02/22/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 22, 2012 11:05pm]
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