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Foreclosure activist Epstein challenges incumbent Bock in clerk’s race

Palm Beach County Clerk and Comptroller Sharon Bock nearly escaped a challenge to winning a third term.

With just 62 minutes before the filing deadline to make the 2012 ballot, foreclosure-fighting activist and former oncology nurse Lisa Epstein threw herself into a race that now pits the political neophyte against a veteran attorney and established public official who has earned accolades and ruffled feathers in her eight years in office.

Both women are high octane personalities — Epstein, a dogged researcher and community organizer, and Bock, a driven administrator who has tackled a massive computer conversion while navigating millions of dollars in state-mandated budget cuts.

The two Democrats will compete in the Aug. 14 election. With no one else running, all county voters will be eligible to vote in the race and the winner will take the seat.

Epstein, 46, came into public view in 2010 as a homeowner advocate uncovering flawed and fraudulent court documents filed by banks in foreclosure cases. It was a year after her own home went into foreclosure — a case she is still fighting — and a time when tens of thousands of Palm Beach County homeowners were facing repossession of their primary asset. According to court records, Epstein owed her lender $313,486 in 2009 for a home she bought in 2007.

Epstein’s work with a handful of other activists and foreclosure defense attorneys was partly credited with the temporary freeze banks put on foreclosures in the fall of 2010.

“I have done everything I can to see that elected officials address issues affecting every one of us and I’ve been very disappointed by the results,” said Epstein, who was laid off from her nursing job and is currently unemployed. “There have been a lot of articles written and a lot of hearings held but the relief for everyday families isn’t there.”

Epstein said she gave Bock’s office examples of fraudulent paperwork and believes Bock should be more active in identifying flawed documents and alerting law enforcement.

“If you or I fabricated a real estate document, it would be a crime,” said Epstein, who rallied foreclosure fighters in 2010 during monthly happy hours where so-called “deadbeats” shared information and tactics.

Bock, first elected in 2004, says Epstein is a one-issue candidate with little grasp of the massive responsibilities of the clerk’s office.

Bock said the role of the clerk is to protect the integrity of the public record but that her oversight is limited by law. She said she could face lawsuits for turning away filings, and, with as many as 20 million documents coming in annually, she’d need more staff to evaluate each one.

In addition to overseeing public records, the clerk acts as the county’s chief financial officer, treasurer and auditor. The office is also charged with investing and earning revenue on county funds, maintaining the records of the Palm Beach County Commission and administering the Value Adjustment Board, which settles disputes between taxpayers and the property appraiser.

The clerk’s office has a $48.6 million budget and 735 employees.

Bock, 59, also has avoided joining two lawsuits filed by other Florida clerks that sought to recoup fees allegedly sidestepped during the housing boom and bust by lenders and mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

A federal judge recently dismissed one of the cases after finding no law had been violated.

The other lawsuit, filed last month by the Hernando County Clerk, is going after Fannie and Freddie for unpaid real estate transfer taxes. The taxes collected are typically small and weren’t much of an issue before the real estate meltdown.

Already dealing with a $2.5 million budget cut for the current fiscal year that forced her to reduce office hours, Bock said the taxes lawsuit may be something better pursued by the Florida Department of Revenue.

“I do not get into lawsuits lightly,” said Bock, who was in private practice before starting at the clerk’s office in 1998 as chief deputy for court services. “I do not spend taxpayers’ dollars lightly.”

One of Bock’s priorities has been to oversee an update to the court’s computer system, an overhaul that drew fire in 2008 with a fight about the cost of the estimated $10 million project. In February, Bock debuted the first phase of the upgrade with 3.9 million digitized criminal and traffic cases. In January 2010 Bock moved foreclosure auctions online, saving an estimated 2,600 work hours each year.

She plans to continue the push to make more records available online, a move that includes “huge cultural changes” in a system where judges are accustomed to taking cases home and handwriting notes on documents.

“The big change is how do you run a court system moving from big fat files to where a judge is just looking at a screen,” she said.

In July, Bock was appointed to serve on the Florida Courts Technology Commission, a statewide group that creates policy and oversees the use of technology in the court system.

Bock has butted heads with some county officials. Last year she announced she would not use money collected from any of the county’s 38 cities and towns to fund the inspector general’s office until a judge weighed in on a lawsuit filed by 14 cities over having to make the payments.

Epstein acknowledged she will have a steep learning curve if she wins the clerk’s seat, but said she would listen to current employees and has no plans to “clean house.”

If she doesn’t win, Epstein said she will go back to nursing or get a job at a nonprofit organization. American Express won a $13,742 judgment against her for unpaid bills in November.

As of Friday, Epstein had raised $24,185 in donations, and Bock had amassed $55,460.

Article source: http://www.palmbeachpost.com/news/news/state-regional-govt-politics/foreclosure-activist-epstein-challenges-incumbent-/nP4hg/

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