Dowd lived life fight­ing for poor

Maxwell: The savvy lawyer, fierce ad­vo­cate helped the peo­ple.

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - Scott Maxwell Sentinel Colum­nist

The day be­fore Jackie Dowd died, my wife and I got to visit her.

It was only for a few min­utes. She was in pain and ready to leave this earth.

But she greeted us Fri­day with the cheeri­est ex­cla­ma­tion she could muster.

Why? Be­cause, even on her deathbed, Jackie’s first in­stinct was to try to make us feel val­ued.

That’s how she lived her life … for oth­ers.

Jackie, 67, was a savvy lawyer and fierce ad­vo­cate — a former as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral who could’ve banked big bucks work­ing for cor­po­rate Amer­ica.

In­stead, she chose to work in the streets — and some­times even the woods — of Cen­tral Florida, serv­ing pen­ni­less clients whose only form of pay­ment was of­ten a hug or a teary “thank you.”

Jackie helped many causes but spent the last decade as lead at­tor­ney for IDig­nity, a won­der­fully ef­fec­tive non­profit that helps peo­ple who have lost var­i­ous forms of gov­ern­ment ID.

Maybe that prob­lem doesn’t strike you as a big deal or wide­spread is­sue. It is.

You need an ID to get a job, rent an apart­ment, drive a car or do most any­thing else in Amer­ica.

Now imag­ine try­ing to prove

who you are if you didn’t have a sin­gle piece of pa­per to back you up.

Our community is filled with peo­ple who lack that pass­port to life — veter­ans in need of ben­e­fits, abused spouses who fled vi­o­lent part­ners with­out any of their per­sonal be­long­ings, and fam­i­lies who lost all their valu­ables to crime or in a fire.

Those peo­ple are IDig­nity’s sole mis­sion. And the need is so great in this community that when IDig­nity opens its doors at 8 a.m. to help clients each month, the line of des­per­ate souls of­ten wraps around the build­ing.

Jackie was al­ways there, ready to do le­gal bat­tle with what­ever bu­reau­cracy stood be­tween her clients and their right to prove they ex­ist.

I think Jackie was al­ways des­tined for a life of street-lawyer­ing … she just didn’t know it at first.

Twenty-five years ago, she was mak­ing a name for her­self as an ag­gres­sive pros­e­cu­tor, go­ing af­ter shady sales­men and get­rich-quick huck­sters.

But the man who would ul­ti­mately end her ca­reer as a civil ser­vant was higher-pro­file — an en­ter­tain­ment gi­ant who ap­peared on magazine cov­ers and world­wide TV: Lou Pearl­man.

Nowa­days, it’s com­mon knowl­edge that Pearl­man was a swindler — a boy-band im­pre­sario who died in prison a few years ago af­ter be­ing con­victed of run­ning a Ponzi scheme.

Dowd knew Pearl­man was up to no good nearly two decades ago. And she tried to go af­ter him.

Pearl­man, though, had friends in pow­er­ful places. He cut checks to politi­cians, in­clud­ing Dowd’s boss back then, Char­lie Crist. He hosted may­ors and coun­cil mem­bers at posh par­ties. Former Or­ange County Sher­iff Kevin Beary made him an hon­orary deputy.

While Dowd knew Pearl­man needed to be stopped, this community’s po­lit­i­cal elites had lit­tle ap­petite for tak­ing on a man who had such fa­mous friends, threw such mem­o­rable par­ties and had such al­legedly grand plans for re­de­vel­op­ing Church Street.

Jackie never learned all the de­tails about why her su­per­vi­sors at the A.G.’s of­fice never pounced when she was ready to go af­ter Pearl­man. Fed­eral of­fi­cials would later de­liver a con­vic­tion on other charges. All

Jackie knew was that she needed a new job — one where she could make a dif­fer­ence and pounce when­ever she darn well pleased.

“I guess I can thank Lou for that,” she once told me. “I wouldn’t be where I am with­out him.”

Jackie could’ve cashed in af­ter leav­ing the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice. Plenty of busi­nesses en­joy hav­ing a former pros­e­cu­tor on their pay­roll.

In­stead, she wanted to help those who could never pay her bills — peo­ple like an ide­al­is­tic 20-some­thing who was ar­rested for feed­ing home­less peo­ple at Lake Eola.

Jackie won that case and many oth­ers. But IDig­nity was Jackie’s pri­mary client (and home) for the past decade. There, she helped more than 20,000 peo­ple re­gain their iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, their abil­ity to get a job, to drive … to prove they count.

Some at­tor­neys han­dle a few dozen cases a year. Jackie would han­dle a few dozen some days.

She was like a noble street lawyer out of John Gr­isham novel, ex­cept Jackie was real-life.

She never had any chil­dren. But some of her clients called her “Mom.”

And her work earned her the

Florida Bar’s high­est honor for public ser­vice, as well as be­ing named a fi­nal­ist for “Cen­tral Florid­ian of the Year” by the Or­lando Sentinel in 2017.

If there was any bless­ing to her month­s­long bat­tle with cancer, it was that peo­ple had plenty of time to tell her good­bye.

“The love for her was al­ways there,” said Michael Dippy, Jackie’s good friend and the founder of IDig­nity. “She just didn’t rec­og­nize it un­til she was in this sit­u­a­tion, when her heart was open. And then it over­flowed and over­whelmed her to tears.”

In our fi­nal mo­ments, I just wanted her to know what a dif­fer­ence she’d made in this world.

She changed lives, gave hope and in­spired those around her to be bet­ter peo­ple.

Not ev­ery­one can say they did all that, and it’s an in­cred­i­ble legacy to leave.

Jackie passed away Satur­day night with friends at her side.

She wouldn’t have wanted any­one mak­ing a fuss. But if you want to do some­thing to honor Jackie, con­sider mak­ing a do­na­tion to IDig­nity. Or check out IDig­nity.org.

JA­COB LANGSTON/OR­LANDO SENTINEL

Lawyer Jackie Dowd worked tire­lessly to help peo­ple with­out iden­ti­fi­ca­tion restart their lives.

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