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New facts shine dim light on case

The inclusion of old sex charges in the Department of Education's case against Joseph Gatti has a twist insisted upon by his lawyer.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2002


BROOKSVILLE -- At first, state Department of Education officials were not interested in rehashing the old sex charges against Joseph Gatti. But they did last week in part because Gatti's attorney wanted them to.

The Vermont summer camp that Gatti directed -- and brought several Hernando County students to attend -- made a morning ritual out of skinny-dipping in a camp pond.

And, prior to allegations that he molested three of his Powell Middle School students, Gatti had been in trouble with the Boy Scouts because he broke a rule that forbade troop leaders from spending the night alone in a tent with a Scout.

By themselves, none of those facts are likely to swing the decision of administrative law judge Diane Cleavinger, who heard the Education Department make its case last week that Gatti broke the principles of professional conduct for teachers.

But, in a case that has been very much been in the public eye, they amounted to new -- or at least previously unexplored -- details that came to light during Gatti's four-day hearing.

Gatti was accused in 1996 of molesting three Powell students. Criminal charges against him were dropped by prosecutors or dismissed by a judge in 1997 after the boys repeatedly changed their stories.

He also won a 1998 reinstatement hearing that gave him his job back after the judge said his accusers were not credible.

In his latest case, the Department of Education didn't focus solely on sexual allegations.

In fact, there was very little live testimony about the sexual allegations. Instead, attorneys let the transcripts from the 1998 hearing -- which dealt almost exclusively with sex -- speak for themselves.

But the sex might not have been included at all except that Gatti's attorney, Mark Herdman, wanted it in the case. Why would an attorney want racy allegations against his client included in the record?

Because, said Herdman, it was the testimony about sexual allegations -- and the impossibilities and inconsistencies contained therein -- that killed the credibility of Gatti's accusers.

The Education Department left the sexual allegations out of its original 1999 complaint against Gatti. They brought them back when the complaint was refiled in 2000. Education Department attorney Wiley Horton said Herdman had a lot to do with that.

Herdman did not disagree. He said the department wanted its witnesses to testify about parental interference matters and little else. He saw the testimony as inseparable.

In a meeting with Education Department officials in Tallahassee, Herdman said, he made it clear he intended to bring up the sex testimony -- and its gold mine of admitted lies and inconsistencies from Gatti's accusers -- whether the department wanted it or not.

In the end, the department included the sex charges but spent little time dwelling on them.

* * *

On another front, skinny-dipping was a topic aired out last week that was not heard in 1998.

Both Coy Burge and Jason Kloss testified that Gatti participated in Camp Sangamon's morning tradition of skinny-dipping in a pond at the camp. Burge said he went skinny-dipping some, too. Kloss said Gatti talked to him about taking part, but he declined.

Gatti, meanwhile, denied participating in the tradition or encouraging others to do so.

However, the judge told attorneys that skinny-dipping wasn't something she took seriously. It was summer camp, she said, and that's something that happens at camp.

* * *

Horton, the department's attorney, raised questions about a complaint that when Gatti was a Scout troop leader, he spent the night alone in a tent with a Scout -- a Scout rules violation.

Shawnn O'Connor, now a 25-year-old athletic trainer and longtime Gatti friend, said nothing inappropriate happened when Gatti stayed in the tent with him that night.

In fact, O'Connor said, questions about Gatti doing anything inappropriate were laughable. He said Gatti, who was his sponsor during the Catholic confirmation process, is someone he trusts with his life. The tent issue came up only briefly in 1998.

* * *

Herdman, Gatti's attorney, raised new questions about Deborah Burge, the first person to mention to police concerns about Gatti's possible abuse. Her stepson, Coy, has been at the heart of the case for five years. And, she said, as a victim of abuse herself, she was sensitive to the behavior changes associated with sex abuse.

Herdman put forth the theory that she makes sexual abuse claims frivolously. He got Burge to testify that, despite her claims during the Gatti case that she was abused, she never reported her own abuse.

Under Herdman's questioning, she also said that an allegation she made about the abuse of her daughter went nowhere. She said it was because her daughter declined to testify.

* * *

Unlike 1998, when the only experts to testify did so in Gatti's behalf, the Education Department last week brought clinical psychologist Evelyn R. Goslin to the stand.

Goslin, who has reviewed hundreds of child sex cases, said male children are less likely to report sexual abuse than both girls and adults. Boys are particularly reluctant to report homosexual abuse because of the stigma associated with it.

Goslin said it is common for child accusers to make inconsistent statements. Frequently, she said, children misunderstand questions, get intimidated by questioners or have a hard time assigning dates to events.

The only way to determine if inconsistencies are due to confusion or lying is an intensive evaluation of the child by an expert.

Goslin said she had not done such an evaluation of any of the children in the case -- a fact that almost led Cleavinger, the judge, to exclude her testimony. Cleavinger eventually allowed it, but made no promises that she would consider it valuable.

* * *

Gatti's attorney is countering with two other experts.

Deposition testimony from former Orange County Sheriff Ron Lynch will be submitted soon.

Lynch will criticize the handling of the investigation of the sex charges against Gatti by the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, according to Herdman. In addition, transcripts of the 1998 testimony from Michigan State University professor Ron Horvath will be used by Herdman to criticize some of the equipment and techniques investigators used in drawing out the accusations from Gatti's accusers.

* * *

Cleavinger said she will need fewer than 30 days to decide the case, once last week's testimony is transcribed from tapes and attorneys deliver their proposed rulings. All told, the decision is expected sometime toward the end of April or early May.

-- Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com.

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