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Legislator facing probe of vicious e-mails resigns

Published November 2, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - State Rep. Ralph Arza resigned Wednesday, less than an hour before a House panel was to begin investigating messages he left for another lawmaker that included profanity and a racial slur.

But while he spared himself from an unusual spectacle, Arza finds himself in a potentially worse spot:

Prosecutors later Wednesday charged the Hialeah Republican with one felony count each of retaliating against and tampering with a witness.

"What he did was reduce himself from a respected state lawmaker to the level of nothing more than a common street thug," Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said.

The lawmaker Arza lashed out at, Rep. Gus Barreiro, R-Miami Beach, had filed a complaint about a previous slur Arza allegedly used toward a Miami-Dade school official, who is black.

Arza, 46, said he would not seek re-election because he did not want to be a distraction as the House prepares for a new session, led by incoming Speaker Marco Rubio.

"I do not want to be the story," Arza said outside Hialeah City Hall. He apologized and said the episode has "caused me great pain and humiliation."

Arza faced only write-in ballot opposition and was expected to win re-election. The Republican Party will choose his replacement in the race, though his name will remain on the ballot.

Arza left a voice mail last month, setting off calls from Republicans and Democrats alike that he resign. He referred to Barreiro as "b----" and used a racial slur. Barreiro is Cuban-American.

More aggressive messages were left by Arza's cousin, 25-year-old Paulino Barbon Jr. Prosecutors Wednesday also charged Barbon with retaliating against and tampering with a witness.

Arza previously denied using the offensive word in connection with Miami-Dade school superintendent Rudy Crew, and he repeated that denial Wednesday.

But he clearly uses the word on Barreiro's message. "I apologize for that. I ask for forgiveness for that," he said, standing amid family members and friends.

A six-member House committee, including Trey Traviesa of Tampa, planned to begin a hearing at noon Wednesday, and Arza and Barreiro were to testify. Possible action included a formal reprimand or censure.

"Ralph Arza is my friend," Traviesa said. "I am sorry for the real injury he caused with his hurtful comments. ... It is up to him now to deal with his demons and seek the healing that his comments made necessary. I know he will."

Gov. Jeb Bush said Arza's words should be condemned but praised his work on education.

"The Ralph Arza I know is a person of honor, of intelligence, of passion," the governor said.

"People should remember that Ralph Arza. I know we live in a world where we seek human sacrifices for mistakes. Who amongst us is perfect?"

Democrats were not as kind. "He was very arrogant, he was very self-serving," said state Sen. Frederica Wilson of Miami.


[Last modified November 2, 2006, 04:59:20]

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