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    Ex-judge hires lawyer with a high profile

    Facing an FBI inquiry, former Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez turns to the defense attorney in the Aisenberg case.

    By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 18, 2002

    TAMPA -- Barry Cohen, the criminal defense attorney who took on the government in the Sabrina Aisenberg missing baby case, agreed Friday to represent former Hillsborough Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez, who is facing an FBI inquiry.

    The FBI is asking questions about how Alvarez handled the multimillion-dollar legal dispute over the estate of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse.

    Alvarez turned to Cohen Friday because the first lawyer he hired, Ralph Fernandez, may have a conflict. Fernandez has represented another figure in the FBI investigation, former Circuit Judge Robert Bonanno.

    "It has been suggested by the government that I may have a conflict," Fernandez said.

    He would not say who in the government made the suggestion or what Bonanno's role in the FBI investigation may be.

    Bonanno oversaw lawsuits between the Culverhouse trust and one of its former trustees, Stephen Story.

    Bonanno resigned this year after the the Florida Legislature began hearings to impeach him. He could not be reached for comment Friday.

    An agent for the FBI has interviewed several people in the Culverhouse estate cases, asking whether Alvarez or Bonanno accepted gifts or money to make decisions in the case.

    On Friday, Cohen warned the FBI to conduct its investigation in an even-handed manner.

    "I expect it to be a fair investigation, underlining fair," Cohen said. "If it is not fair, I will deal with it appropriately."

    The scope of the FBI's inquiry remained unclear Friday. It certainly encompasses the Culverhouse trust cases, but it may be part of a wider probe of the Hillsborough County Courthouse.

    An FBI agent recently interviewed Alvarez's former law clerk, John Crowther, who assisted him and later Circuit Judge Susan Sexton in the Culverhouse cases. Crowther declined to comment Friday.

    Crowther worked for Sexton when she oversaw lawsuits between the Culverhouse trust and Story.

    While the case was pending, Hugh Culverhouse Jr. wrote John Lombardi, then president of the University of Florida, to recommend that Crowther get into the tax law program at UF. Culverhouse told Lombardi he had observed Crowther's "work product and diligence" in Alvarez's court.

    Sexton said Friday she hasn't been contacted by the FBI. "Why would they?" she asked.

    The legal battle now under scrutiny began when the former Bucs owner died in 1994 and left a trust, run by his hand-picked trustees, to oversee his fortune. In 1996, his widow, Joy, challenged how her husband's trustees had run the assets and accused them of self-dealing.

    At one point, Alvarez oversaw the lawsuit and made a ruling awarding Joy Culverhouse a claim of $25-million and an $11.3-million dividend. But he got off the case after lawyers discovered that charities had written him letters urging him to rule for Mrs. Culverhouse. Alvarez was on the board of the one of the charities.

    After he stepped down, he assigned Sexton to the case.

    It was settled before a trial could conclude. But that wasn't the end of the lawsuits. New trustees later fired Story as asset manager and demanded he repay excessive fees. That dispute also landed in Sexton's court.

    In September 1997, Story's lawyers moved to disqualify Sexton because she was using Alvarez's law clerk to help her with the case. After Sexton stepped down from the case, it was reassigned to Bonanno.

    About the same time, lawyers for the University of Alabama alleged in court documents that Alvarez had dinner with Hugh Culverhouse Jr. during the legal dispute. He allegedly boasted that he would rule "down the line" for the Culverhouse family and bragged about arranging for a female judge to take over the case.

    Both Culverhouse and Alvarez have denied that the dinner and conversation took place.

    Story's attorney, Guy Burns, said Friday that more than one FBI agent interviewed him and followed up with several phone calls. The FBI contacted him; he did not initiate any complaint, he said.

    "I have always perceived when you get contacted by the FBI that they have limited resources and are not just going through the motions," Burns said.

    Culverhouse check meant for party

    TAMPA -- Hugh Culverhouse Jr. said Friday he made a mistake when he questioned how former Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez spent a $500 contribution to Alvarez's aborted campaign for mayor.

    Culverhouse's $500 check written to "Friends of Dennis Alvarez Esq." was actually for the judge's retirement party, Culverhouse said. It was not meant to help Alvarez's brief campaign for mayor.

    "I made a misstatement," Culverhouse wrote in an apology letter to Alvarez, which he also faxed to the St. Petersburg Times.

    On Thursday, Culverhouse had questioned why Alvarez had not refunded the check after he dropped out of the race for mayor.

    That raised questions about why Alvarez never opened a campaign account. A candidate can't spend money or accept contributions without opening an account.

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