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Feds not as quick to cry corruption as judge is

By MARY JO MELONE
Published December 7, 2003

There he was, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Greg Holder on the front page of the Tampa Tribune on Thursday, playing the part of the crusader but without the cape.

In a headline, the newspaper declared: "Judge: Evidence of Corruption Ignored by FBI."

The story below the headline disclosed that Holder had been an informant for federal authorities in what the Tribune called, without providing many details, a "sweeping corruption probe" of the county courthouse.

The story also reported that the investigation stopped last year. Holder became furious. He complained to the U.S. Department of Justice. He accused the FBI of "deliberate avoidance of the truth."

The language was hot; the story, riveting.

But something was wrong.

Holder didn't know what he was talking about. The investigation wasn't over.

It took Holder's attorney, Virginia Houser, to set him straight at week's end, after somebody in her office contacted the Department of Justice.

"He now knows he was misinformed," Houser said. "His part of the investigation was closed, but he now understands the rest of it is ongoing."

Holder should have spoken more carefully 13 months ago. As a judge, he surely knows that investigations move along tediously and that informants are kept in the dark about the progress of a case.

But on another level, I can understand why Holder went off the deep end.

He's convinced Hillsborough County is corrupt. It's part of his belief system.

He's not alone. There is no story in Hillsborough County older than this one. The story, or at least the allegation, is that the county is crooked to its core.

The suspicions periodically turn out to be true. Over the years, a sheriff, some county commissioners and a couple of judges have been hauled off by police. I might have missed a few other examples.

The rumors always have outnumbered the actual cases. They often include talk of the Mafia. As I said, there is no story like this one.

As much as Holder believes it, others don't, or at least they demand proof.

They've been burned over the years. They've seen federal prosecutors stampede across town believing the worst about Hillsborough, particularly about people with Latin names.

I think of 2nd District Court of Appeal Judge E.J. Salcines. In the '80s, when he was state attorney, then-U.S. attorney Bob Merkle was convinced Salcines was corrupt but never proved it.

Later came Key Bank, where authorities suspected money laundering. But the case against several prominent, and very embarrassed, people fell apart over faulty investigative documents.

It won't make Holder happy, but these experiences probably have made federal agents gun-shy.

He's saying he has evidence of at least one judge in Hillsborough taking a bribe.

That's a far step up from the locker room antics that used to occur in the courthouse, with judges carrying on affairs or looking the other way at those who did.

Then there was the episode straight out of a mystery in which one of those compromised judges, Robert Bonanno, was caught in Holder's office in 2000 without a satisfactory explanation.

Holder eventually developed problems of his own. Earlier this year, he was accused of plagiarizing a report he wrote to get a promotion in the Air Force Reserve. The federal Judicial Qualifications Commission is investigating.

Holder suddenly doesn't look so clean. He thinks that his courthouse enemies, men like Bonanno perhaps, are responsible and that they want to discredit him and the federal investigation.

Holder believes in conspiracies. Maybe he's right to. I'm not sure.

What I am sure about is that if Holder is right, Hillsborough is about to become engaged in another battle over whether that old story about its nature is true.

- Mary Jo Melone can be reached at mjmelone@sptimes.com or 813 226-3402.

[Last modified December 7, 2003, 01:34:09]


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