Stripper says judge shielded her from creditors
It was a way to keep creditors at bay, she says. He says she was a friend, but denies her allegations.
By Colleen Jenkins Times Staff Writer
Published March 12, 2008
An appeals judge denied Tuesday that he helped shield a stripper from creditors seeking nearly $315,000.
Judge Thomas E. Stringer Sr., who sits on the 2nd District Court of Appeal and hears cases from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, says he had "a friendship" and "a business relationship" with the woman.
But Christy Yamanaka, a New York City stripper, told a local TV station that the judge let her put thousands of dollars into his bank accounts so she could avoid repaying her credit card debt.
The judge conceded that Yamanaka once lived in a home in Hawaii that he purchased, but would not discuss her claim that they had a sexual relationship.
"I can't comment on the details of our personal relationship or our business relationship," he said during a 40-minute interview at his attorney's Tampa law office.
Yamanaka, 47, indicated in December that she plans to sue Stringer for money that she says he owes her. Neither she nor her attorney could be reached for comment Tuesday.
"Judge suggests to me to put the money into his account," she said in an interview with WFLA-Ch. 8. "Due to his position, nobody bothered him so it would be safe."
Her allegations put Stringer, 63, on the defensive, an awkward spot for a man inducted last year into Stetson University College of Law's Hall of Fame.
Stringer's attorney, Lansing Scriven, said his client had to be cautious with his answers, given the pending litigation. He would not allow the judge to answer several questions about his financial dealings with Yamanaka.
But Stringer was adamant that he had not aided Yamanaka in hiding her money.
"That is absolutely not true," Stringer said.
Married for 25 years to Tampa Housing Authority public relations director Lillian Stringer, the judge said he met Yamanaka 15 years ago at what was then Malio's restaurant on Dale Mabry Highway. They developed a friendship, he said, but lost touch after she moved away.
She called again a few years later, he said. She was married then. He remembers talking to her husband.
"She talked about many things, just as friends would do," Stringer said, but not about any financial troubles.
Yamanaka filed for bankruptcy in Las Vegas in August 2000 after accumulating $335,600 in credit card debt. She listed herself as an unemployed homemaker.
Bank of America and American Express won judgments against her totaling nearly $315,000, court records show.
Stringer said he is not certain when he became aware of Yamanaka's financial woes. He told her that he could not give her advice about her bankruptcy. Instead, he referred her to his son, Tampa attorney Daryl Stringer. The younger Stringer provided legal representation to Yamanaka, the judge said.
"I know it had to do with her financial problems," he said.
Records show that Stringer bought a home in Honolulu in 2004 for $440,000. Yamanaka alerted him to the home as a potential investment and lived there after he bought it.
She signed a lease and paid rent, Stringer said. He sold the home in December 2006 for $749,000, property records show. He would not discuss how they split the proceeds.
Public relations specialist Bill Frederick, enlisted by the judge to handle media calls spawned by the allegations, said both Stringer and Yamanaka had access to a bank account because of their partnership for the Hawaii home.
Stringer was named to the appellate bench by Gov. Jeb Bush in February 1999.
He was the first African-American student to earn a law degree from Stetson, where the Black Law Students Association in 2005 dedicated the name of its chapter in his honor.
A father of five adult children, he worked as a prosecutor and private attorney before Gov. Bob Graham appointed him in 1984 to serve as a county judge in Hillsborough. Three years later, Gov. Bob Martinez promoted him to the circuit bench.
He hears appeals from a 14-county district. He recently was the dissenting voice in a 2-1 decision that overturned the conviction of Michael Mordenti, accused of carrying out a 1989 murder-for-hire plot.
"He is a top-notch professional," said 2nd DCA Chief Judge Stevan T. Northcutt. "I have deep respect for him professionally and as a co-worker."
Two years ago, voters retained Stringer for another six-year term.
Judicial canons call for judges to be scrupulous about their finances. Helping someone avoid creditors would constitute an ethical violation, if not make a judge an accomplice to a crime, said Christopher Slobogin, a law professor at the University of Florida.
"That would be a problem for a judge if this turns out to be true," Slobogin said. "They need to bend over backward to avoid situations that appear compromising."
Yamanaka told WFLA reporter Steve Andrews that she deposited the money she earned stripping in Las Vegas and New York into ATMs in those cities, using an ATM card the judge gave her.
The judge would not discuss any bank accounts. In the past 10 years, he said, he has seen Yamanaka in person "probably twice," instead talking mostly by phone.
Since last spring, she has lived in a New York City apartment leased under Stringer's name. He said he assisted her with the lease because of her bad credit and has had to pay the $1,600 monthly rent on two or three occasions.
"I was just helping a friend," he said. But, he added, "I do not intend to renew the lease."
Times staff writers Michael Van Sickler, Justin George, Janet Zink and researchers Caryn Baird, Will Short Gorham and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3337.