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Noelle Bush Gets 10-Day Jail Term

October 18, 2002|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI -- Her hands cuffed behind her back, Noelle Bush, the president's niece, was sent to jail Thursday to serve a 10-day sentence for violating the terms of her court-ordered drug rehabilitation program.

Workers at a treatment center in Orlando allegedly found a piece of crack cocaine last month in the heel of a shoe belonging to Bush, 25, the daughter of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

"I sincerely apologize for what happened," Noelle Bush told Circuit Judge Reginald Whitehead before he found her in contempt of court. "I promise to do well at the Center for Drug-Free Living from now on."

Whitehead gave Bush yet another chance to straighten out her life, noting that she could have faced additional charges in connection with the alleged rock cocaine discovery.

"Don't look at the worst part of this, but look at the overall situation," the judge told her. "You could have very easily been charged with a new felony offense. This is a great opportunity for you to show yourself that you can do well. You don't have to show anybody else."

Jeb Bush, a Republican seeking reelection against an increasingly strong Democratic challenger, did not attend the hearing in an Orlando courtroom, saying he did not want to prompt additional media coverage. Noelle's uncle, President Bush, arrived in Florida later in the day to campaign and raise money for his younger brother.

"Words cannot express the sadness that Columba and I feel about what has happened with our daughter Noelle today," Jeb Bush said in a statement, speaking for himself and his wife. "Nonetheless, as governor, but most importantly as her father, I know she must face the consequences of her actions."

In January, Noelle Bush was arrested in Tallahassee on a felony charge that she used a phony prescription to try to purchase Xanax, an anxiety drug that is taken by some cocaine users. Under Florida's drug court program, she was enrolled at a rehabilitation center and must complete the program to avoid prosecution on the prescription forgery charge.

That requirement, though, did not prevent an incident of backsliding in July, when Bush was sent to jail for three days after she was found with an unauthorized prescription drug.

"I am disappointed. You let a lot of people down," the judge told her Thursday. "What's important is, you shouldn't let yourself down."

Randy Means, executive director of the state attorney's office in Orlando, said prosecutors concurred with Whitehead's decision to stake out a middle path between possible new criminal charges for Noelle Bush and continuing the therapy to wean her off drugs.

"The state has a lot of failure rate in these programs, obviously," Means said. "The way to catch the attention of the person who is failing is to put them in jail for a few days."

According to a police report, a worker at the treatment center gave a written statement that 0.2 grams of crack were found in Bush's shoe on Sept. 9, but ripped up the statement when a supervisor ordered him not to cooperate.

On Sept. 30, Judge Belvin Perry Jr. ruled that Bush's therapists could not be subpoenaed about the alleged cocaine discovery, saying federal confidentiality laws protect her as long as she resides in a drug treatment center and is under a judge's supervision. Prosecutors have appealed, contending that a crime is a crime, even if it occurs in a drug treatment center, and that Bush's confidentiality as a patient is not threatened.

"We don't think having her found with an alleged piece of rock in her heel is a medical record, and we don't think the name of whoever supplied it is a medical record," Means said. "We don't want to create a nirvana [inside the rehabilitation center] for drug sellers and users."

Sydney Smith, a Miami criminal defense lawyer and former public defender in Miami-Dade County, said Perry's ruling was without precedent.

"What a client says to a therapist, yes, in my view, that would be privileged," Smith said. "But evidence of a crime, which in this case was possession of cocaine, I've never heard of anyone having the privilege to" keep that information away from authorities.

However, Catherine O'Neill, an attorney with the New York-based Legal Action Center, which represents people being treated for drug and alcohol dependency, said it was important to remember why federal laws protecting their privacy have been on the books since the early 1970s.

"The treatment center's interest is to provide the sort of confidentiality that will foster treatment," O'Neill said. "The key societal interests here are, let's reduce crime, and let's promote people's recovery from addiction."

Some have suggested that the governor's daughter has received special treatment.

"Here's the question that all Floridians should be asking: Why is Noelle Bush sitting in a rehab center while other drug-law violators are rotting in prison?" Steve Dasbach, executive director of the Libertarian Party in Washington, D.C., said in a statement this month.

Last week, "The Boondocks," a topical and controversial comic strip drawn by Aaron McGruder, accused someone identified as "Jeb" of hypocritical double standards on the drug treatment issue.

Gov. Bush has asserted that far from receiving special treatment, his daughter has been subjected to the unforgiving and unhelpful glare of national media attention.

"I'd like to wave a magic wand and have this devil be, you know, exorcised from her -- from her life, from her soul, so that she can make clear decisions for herself and live an independent life and a joyful one," he said in a television interview Tuesday. "But I can't. She has to do it."

Noelle Bush was joined in court by an aunt, Dorothy Koch, whom she kissed before being handcuffed and led off to the Orange County Jail in Orlando.

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