By JEFF TESTERMAN, Times Staff Writer
At odds over alimony payments, a Tampa attorney and his ex-wife tangle in a flurry of hearings and motions.
TAMPA - The combative divorce of Tampa attorney Jonathan Alpert and his wife Liz began with finger pointing, quarrels about money and complaints of abusive behavior - including an allegation that he once dangled the family cat over a pot of spaghetti sauce.
But in January, the couple divorced, and Jonathan Alpert was ordered to pay his wife $11,892 a month in alimony.
This week, with Jonathan Alpert facing contempt charges for failure to pay that alimony, the legal battle heated up again. By Thursday, it was being waged in two Tampa courtrooms.
On Monday, Alpert sued his former wife, claiming she intentionally inflicted emotional distress on him during their 23-year marriage with an exploitative plan to take his money while she secretly planned to divorce him.
On Thursday morning, he managed to avoid a ruling on the contempt charges by using a motion seeking to disqualify Family Law Judge Monica L. Sierra for bias. His motion took up so much time that the hearing ended before the judge could order him to start writing alimony checks again.
A few minutes later, Liz Alpert's attorney Stanford R. "Sandy" Solomon left Sierra's courtroom and walked down the hall to the chambers of Circuit Judge Perry Little, who is hearing Jonathan Alpert's suit claiming infliction of emotional distress. There, Solomon filed a motion seeking an emergency injunction to prohibit Jonathan Alpert from talking to the syndicated TV news magazine Inside Edition or any other media about that case.
That motion is scheduled to be heard this morning.
"I think it's plain Liz has a lot she doesn't want to talk about and wants to keep under a rock," Jonathan Alpert said of the request for the gag order.
"Obviously, I do understand this is a First Amendment issue," said Liz Alpert, a three-time Democratic candidate for the Florida House and the Tampa City Council. "But this is nothing but a smear campaign."
Thursday, in an attempt to reduce his alimony obligation, Jonathan Alpert planned to call to the witness stand his psychiatrist, Michael Maher. The doctor would have testified about Jonathan Alpert's depression and his worsening multiple sclerosis both hindering his ability to keep earning the $400,000 or so a year he made before the divorce.
In asking for contempt charges, Liz Alpert was prepared Thursday to present evidence that her ex-husband had missed several alimony payments but had spent lavishly on trips to places such as New Zealand, New York and Las Vegas and had picked up the tab for thousands of dollars in meals at restaurants.
"I've been paying her more than I make," said Jonathan Alpert. "The issue is whether I am allowed to have a life."
When Alpert returned to the courtroom, the judge ruled that she was denying his motion to reduce alimony. He then informed the judge that she could not make such a ruling because, minutes earlier, he had filed a motion to disqualify her.
The motion says Jonathan Alpert cannot get a fair hearing because of Sierra's bias. Alpert said he had contributed to and supported Sierra's political opponent, his former law partner Woody Isom.
Sierra disappeared for 25 minutes, then returned with an order denying the move to disqualify her. Jonathan Alpert said he would appeal. As for the cat and the spaghetti sauce, both mentioned the incident in depositions in the divorce. Liz Alpert said it was harassment, letting cat hairs fall into the sauce. Jonathan said no malevolence was intended.
"She never liked the cat," he said. "He's my cat. The cat likes to look at the spaghetti.'