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'Cloud of suspicion' is lifted

A five-year federal investigation finds no corruption at the Hillsborough County Courthouse.

By COLLEEN JENKINS
Published September 7, 2006


TAMPA - A five-year federal investigation into alleged corruption at the Hillsborough County Courthouse concluded recently with no findings of wrongdoing by current judges or court employees.

In an Aug. 29 letter to Chief Judge Manuel Menendez, U.S. Attorney Paul Perez agreed it was time to lift "the cloud of suspicion" and restore the public's confidence in the justice system.

The investigation, Perez said, unearthed "no credible evidence of 'courthouse corruption' within the 13th Judicial Circuit."

Perez would not disclose Wednesday what allegations the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement had investigated.

He and Menendez said the letter marking the end of the probe was written primarily to reassure the public, but also was directed to the local news media, particularly the Tampa Tribune.

Both the St. Petersburg Times and the Tribune have written stories about courthouse troubles in recent years. But the chief judge said the Tribune portrayed the federal inquiry as a "giant investigation" into corruption by stringing together unrelated events at the courthouse and Hillsborough Sheriff's Office.

A time line accompanying a Tribune story last year included former State Attorney Harry Lee Coe's suicide, former Circuit Judge Ed Ward's alleged sexual misconduct and an accidental prescription drug overdose by a friend of ousted Maj. Rocky Rodriguez as part of "a series of scandals" that led to the corruption investigation.

The negative coverage persisted even though the people ensnared in past turmoil no longer worked at the courthouse, Menendez said. So when the investigation ended, the chief judge asked for written confirmation of the clean bill of health.

"I want this to be the last chapter," he said.

The man who helped expose some earlier chapters declined comment Wednesday on the close of the investigation.

From September 2001 to May 2002, Circuit Judge Gregory Holder provided information about courthouse corruption to FBI and FDLE investigators.

In November 2002, thinking the FBI had dropped its investigation without filing any charges, he fired off a letter to the U.S. Justice Department that claimed it was ignoring compelling evidence he had provided about a bribe received by another unnamed Tampa judge.

An FBI special agent told reporters then that the investigation was ongoing and had never been halted.

Last year, as he fended off a plagiarism charge that he claimed was payback for his whistle-blower role, Holder named several Tampa officials as targets of the federal investigation during his testimony before the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

The list included Rodriguez and former judges F. Dennis Alvarez and Robert Bonanno. Alvarez, who had been chief judge, retired in July 2001 after the JQC opened an inquiry into his handling of other judges' misconduct.

Bonanno announced his resignation later that year, moments before he was scheduled to appear before a Florida House committee considering his impeachment amid questions about a courthouse affair, the sealing of cases and the purchase of a $450,000 model home.

Though Perez's letter mentions only current employees being cleared by the probe, Menendez said his former colleagues also had been vindicated.

"Otherwise somebody would have been indicted or charged," he said. "I think they looked at it, they found nothing and they closed their file.

"If there is such a thing as a cloud hanging over the courthouse, hopefully it's blown away and gone somewhere else for a while," the judge continued. "This is a good place, it's not tainted and we just wanted to get that message out one more time."

Circuit Judge Debra Behnke, a veteran member of the Hillsborough bench, said most courthouse employees were too new to remember the problems of the past.

"We've moved on," she said.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 813 226-3337 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.

[Last modified September 7, 2006, 01:21:08]


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