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'It's really not fair to Mr. Gatti'

Dragging out a case for so long is rare, but officials offer no reason for the delay.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2002

State Department of Education officials know Joseph Gatti was cleared of criminal charges. They know, too, that the School Board gave him his job back 3 1/2 years ago.

But more than five years after Gatti was accused of being a child molester, the Department of Education plans to proceed Monday with a hearing in Brooksville that could cost Gatti his teaching license.

Gatti calls the latest hearing a "witch hunt." His attorney, Mark Herdman, says it is persecution of an innocent man by "a government agency run amok." Both speak of the Education Department as if it were the Gestapo, the KGB or some other secret police.

Even some casual observers question why the department is prosecuting a 5-year-old case on virtually the same evidence that's been hashed out before.

"It's a long time, and it's really not fair to Mr. Gatti," said Pasco school superintendent John Long, who has sat in judgment on teachers before as a member of the Education Practices Commission. "Five or six years is a long time. There's no excuse for that."

Hernando County superintendent Wendy Tellone says such a drawn-out process that rehashes old accusations puts Gatti, his school and the community in a bad spot.

"It makes no sense to me that they are pursuing this," Tellone said.

Officials with the state teachers union say cases that drag more than five years are, at best, rare. Some veteran administrators in the state say there probably have been cases that have carried on longer. Still, no one could think of any.

So why is it that, five years after being notified of the allegations, the Department of Education is just now getting around to hauling Joseph Gatti into a hearing?

Officially, there's no comment.

Department spokesman Adam Shores said last week he could not talk about the case. Nor could he say how many other teachers, if any, had their cases last more than five years.

About all Shores could offer was this: Education Commissioner Charlie Crist inherited the case from his predecessor, Tom Gallagher. And Crist's administration won't interrupt it.

Shores' predecessor as spokesperson, JoAnn Carrin, attempted to explain the case last summer by saying there could be new evidence or witnesses this time. And, instead of criminal laws or School Board policy, Gatti's actions would be held up to the teacher code of ethics.

But in pretrial documents, Education Department attorney Wiley Horton said sexual allegations in the upcoming hearing are identical to those heard at the 1998 reinstatement hearing before the School Board.

However, Horton said there would be new evidence on Gatti's interference with a parent's custodial rights. Herdman, Gatti's attorney, said it sounds like old facts repackaged. "After five years, there's nothing new out there," he said.

Some people outside the Education Department wonder whether high turnover in the department's legal division contributed to the delay.

Some, like Pasco County's Long, suggest that the department has a backlog of cases, one that developed because less serious cases -- teacher DUIs and shoplifting charges, for example -- are being prosecuted now that would have been ignored years ago.

But Education Department officials remain mum.

So incensed are Gatti and Herdman that they have already notified the department to expect a lawsuit based on the "negligent investigation."

Herdman said the department failed to live up to a state legal requirement that investigations be done "in good faith, and in a competent manner."

In a letter to Commissioner Crist, Herdman said: "This suit will not only seek damages on behalf of Mr. Gatti, but will seek to expose the nature of the investigation conducted by the Department of Education in your name, that amounts to little more than the persecution of an innocent teacher."

He says he bases that claim largely on what he gleaned from interviewing the Education Department's lead investigator in the Gatti case, Teri Crews, in December. At that interview, conducted more than a year after the Education Department filed its complaint against Gatti, Crews said no one from the department had:

Reviewed any of the testimony from the 1998 hearing.

Interviewed any of Gatti's witnesses from the 1998 case.

Attempted to verify any of the claims of Gatti's accusers or account for ways that those accusers have changed their stories over the years.

"We'll do the case again -- that's no problem," Herdman said, with an air of exasperation. "The problem is the government agency -- the people responsible -- have failed miserably to do their duties."

In her deposition, Crews said there was a feeling among Education Department officials that Gatti's involvement with the children -- buying one a $90 pager, picking up the same boy when he had run away from a youth shelter, "not staying away when he was told" -- wasn't emphasized enough in the 1998 hearing.

Still, Crews acknowledged that the sexual allegations Gatti faces this week are the same ones heard in 1998.

All he has heard leaves Gatti with no expectation of justice in the upcoming case, which will be conducted in the Hernando County School Board office building in Brooksville.

"They are not looking at the truth of it. They are simply looking at an allegation," Gatti said. "The sad thing is that I think there is a very real possibility that these injustices and these lies could end up in the termination of my certificate. I just don't trust their system."

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