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Prosecutors define case against judge

The prosecution's argument focuses on Circuit Judge John Renke III's income for 2002.

By COLLEEN JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
Published August 30, 2005

Prosecutors have provided a look at how they plan to make the case that Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge John Renke III's father overpaid and improperly advanced salary to his lawyer son to pay for the younger Renke's 2002 judicial campaign.

A key contention: Renke III's 2002 salary represented 56 percent of the law firm's total income that year, prosecutors claim.

Yet the firm still had to pay two senior attorneys, one or two paralegals, a full-time secretary, general overhead and office costs, they said Friday.

The preliminary evidence, prosecutors argued, should override Renke III's request for the Judicial Qualifications Commission to dismiss the charge that he accepted a $95,800 loan from his father. Individual campaign contributions are limited to $500.

Renke was elected in 2002 to a circuit judgeship in the two-county circuit. He captured the election by winning Pinellas County by nearly 10,000 votes. In Pasco, where he hears cases at the courthouse in New Port Richey, he split the vote.

The JQC last week denied the 36-year-old judge's request to summarily dismiss most of the ethics charges against him, which are set to be heard at a final hearing beginning Sept. 6.

In 2002, the younger Renke earned a net income of $140,116. The figure was eight times his average net income during the previous seven years at his father's New Port Richey law firm. By comparison, he netted $35,975 in 2001, according to prosecutors' filings.

The Renkes contend the sharp salary increase was the result of several large settlements the firm coincidentally received as the 2002 election season geared up. They represented many years of legal work, the elder Renke said Friday, and the judge claimed the money on his federal tax return before the JQC filed its charges.

"He just makes up facts with no support for them," Renke II said of prosecutor Michael Green.

Case in point, the elder Renke said: His firm's 2002 gross income actually was an estimated $544,000, which would make Renke III's share only about 30 percent.

"And (Green) knows that because he has all the checks," said the elder Renke, a Republican state committee member and former state representative.

Prosecutors argue that Renke II was ordered to keep money for one large settlement in a trust until a final approval in August 2003. The elder Renke testified during a deposition that he paid his son $101,000 out of his own funds in 2002.

But the firm's other attorney, Thomas Gurran, did not receive his $30,000 share until October 2003, prosecutors said.

In another case, they argued, Renke III got $24,000 and Gurran just $2,000, even though Gurran could recall more details about the particular case during his deposition. Gurran remains employed at the Renke firm.

The defense counsel in the latter case, James B. Thompson, "testified that he dealt exclusively with the senior Renke and "didn't even know' that Judge Renke "existed' because from his "perspective in defending the case (Renke III) had no role at all,"' Friday's filing stated.

The elder Renke, 59, said many of the cases would not have been won by his firm without his son's dedicated work. He took offense to prosecutors' assessment of how he compensates his employees.

"What business do they have with how I run my office?" he said.

[Last modified August 30, 2005, 02:45:28]

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