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Kidnap case's fallout persists

The lead prosecutor in the botched case against Steve and Marlene Aisenberg has been demoted from his supervisory position in the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Stephen Kunz had been deputy chief of the criminal division for seven years. He now will work in the special prosecutions unit while the Justice Department investigates the way he and his co-counsel, Rachelle DesVaux Bedke, handled the Aisenberg case.

Kunz and Bedke also face an investigation by the Florida Bar.

"When we hear about potential problems with anyone in our membership, we want to find out what's going on," Susan Bloemendaal, chief disciplinary counsel for the Bar's Tampa branch, said Thursday. "This is standard procedure."

Bloemendaal said Bar officials will likely await the outcome of the federal investigation before taking any action. Lawyers found to have broken the rules can face anything from mandatory educational programs to suspensions to disbarment.

The Times was unable to reach Kunz and Bedke for comment.

The Aisenbergs reported their 5-month-old daughter, Sabrina, was missing from their home in Valrico on Nov. 24, 1997. Hillsborough Sheriff's Office investigators quickly came to suspect the Aisenbergs and bugged their home. A grand jury indicted the Aisenbergs in 1999 on charges of conspiracy and making false statements.

Kunz, 51, and Bedke, 37, told two federal judges on several occasions that audio tapes gathered from the bugs in the Aisenbergs' home proved the couple were involved in Sabrina's disappearance. The prosecutors said the tapes had incriminating statements, such as Marlene telling Steve: "The baby's dead and buried! It was found dead because you did it! The baby's dead no matter what you say _ you just did it."

The charges against the Aisenbergs were dropped in February after a judge recommended the tapes be suppressed. The judge said Sheriff's Office detectives had lied in getting permission for the bugs, and that the tapes had none of the incriminating comments cited in the indictment.

Two weeks ago, prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's Office said in court documents that the case against the Aisenbergs was brought in bad faith. They agreed to pay the couple's legal fees but are arguing over the amount.

Barry Cohen, the Aisenbergs' attorney, wants about $3.75-million; the prosecutors say the amount should be less than $1-million. A judge or mediator ultimately will decide.

Kunz, 51, has practiced law for more than 20 years and made a name for himself prosecuting corrupt politicians and motorcycle gangs. He has been in controversy previously. An appeals court in 1986 equated giving him control of a grand jury with handing a loaded gun to a child. Another judge chastised him for sending out a press release about a case just before it came to trial.

The news of Kunz's demotion left Cohen with mixed emotions. He was happy that something was done but doesn't think it was nearly enough.

Cohen said a defense attorney who behaved like Kunz and Bedke would be rightfully investigated, indicted, jailed and disbarred. He thinks the same should happen to the two prosecutors.

"They put ambition before moral integrity," Cohen said. "And they ruined lives when they did it."

Cohen said he wants to champion an overhaul of a federal justice system that is cloaked in secrecy and gives much power to prosecutors, without any significant checks and balances.

"This case is a great example of why the system needs changing," he said.

_ Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brinksptimes.com.

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