FBI focuses on judge, Culverhouse suits
By DAVID KARP and JEFF TESTERMAN
TAMPA -- The FBI is asking questions about how former Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez handled the dispute over the multimillion-dollar estate of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse.
An agent has conducted several interviews, asking whether Alvarez or others accepted favors or money in the Culverhouse case.
The late owner's son, Hugh Culverhouse Jr., said he met with the FBI two or three weeks ago and discussed at length the Culverhouse trust case and allegations that someone connected with it might have taken a payoff.
"I voluntarily provided a ton of documents to them. They told me I am not a target," Culverhouse said from his office in Miami. "I can tell you the Culverhouse family did not pay anyone for the results of the case."
Alvarez, now a lawyer in private practice, has hired criminal defense attorney Ralph Fernandez to represent him. Fernandez said his client did not do anything wrong.
Fernandez would not discuss details of the inquiry, and Alvarez did not return calls seeking comment.
It's unclear if the FBI's questions are focused on the handling of the numerous lawsuits that followed Culverhouse's death in 1994, or are part of a wider probe of the Hillsborough County Courthouse.
It's also unclear how far along the FBI is in its inquiry. Several key players in the Culverhouse lawsuits, including the late owner's widow, said they haven't heard from the agency.
"I haven't heard a word from anybody," said former Culverhouse trustee Fred Cone Jr.
Fernandez describes the inquiry as preliminary. He said the FBI is simply doing its job by following up on accusations that resulted from a bitter dispute.
"These are reasonable people, and at the appropriate moment we will be able to give them the explanation they seek," Fernandez said. "This is not a stressful scenario."
But Fernandez could not explain what Alvarez did with a campaign contribution he received from Hugh Culverhouse Jr. during his recent, aborted campaign for mayor of Tampa.
Culverhouse said he sent a $500 check to Alvarez when the former judge announced in January that he was a candidate for mayor.
Alvarez dropped out of the race a few days later after suffering heart pains, but never refunded the $500, Culverhouse said.
"I've wondered about that," Culverhouse said. "Where did it go? I've got the canceled check."
Fernandez had no answer.
"This is a novelty," Fernandez said. "I'll review it if it becomes necessary."
Though Alvarez announced his bid for mayor -- he put out a press release, gave interviews and assembled a campaign team -- he never filed official candidate papers. He also never opened a campaign bank account.
State law forbids someone from accepting contributions or spending money on a campaign without filing papers and establishing a campaign account.
But the campaign contribution was not the focus of the FBI's recent meeting with Hugh Culverhouse Jr. That session stemmed from the angry legal battle over his father's estate.
Before his death, Hugh Culverhouse Sr. set up a trust, run by three hand-picked trustees, to handle his fortune. In 1996, Culverhouse's widow, Joy, accused the trustees of mismanaging parts of the assets and of "self-dealing" by awarding themselves hefty bonuses.
Alvarez presided over the dispute at one point, awarding Mrs. Culverhouse a claim of $25-million and an $11.3-million dividend.
But before the case concluded, lawyers moved to disqualify Alvarez after he received letters from several charities, including the Boys and Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay, urging him to allow Mrs. Culverhouse to appoint new trustees.
The charities stood to gain if Mrs. Culverhouse got her way. And Alvarez was then board chairman of the Boys and Girls Clubs.
Alvarez finally took himself off the case, and both sides settled before the trial concluded.
Hugh Culverhouse Jr. said the family was unhappy with the outcome. The family had hoped to oust the Culverhouse trustees and win total control of the Culverhouse trust, but the settlement resulted in charities getting 60 percent of everything.
"We were very disappointed with the results," he said.
After the settlement, more lawsuits followed. In 1997, new trustees for the Culverhouse Trust fired former trustee Steven F. Story as the trust's fund manager, saying his legal fees were exorbitant.
Story sued, claiming the firing violated the settlement agreement. The case was eventually reassigned to former Circuit Judge Robert Bonanno, a close friend of Alvarez and a former law partner.
Bonanno ruled against Story in two important decisions. A state appeals court upheld Bonanno's latest ruling in a one-word opinion in April.
Bonanno, who resigned from office this year rather than face impeachment by the Florida House of Representatives, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
-- David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or email@example.com.
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