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Investigations put sheriff in tough spot

Cal Henderson must decide on punishments in two cases. Both involve friends who acted inappropriately while at work, leading to investigations.

By DAVID KARP and SUE CARLTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


TAMPA -- As sheriff for eight years, Cal Henderson has signed off on dozens of internal affairs investigations. But none was quite as ticklish as the one just completed and awaiting his review.

Sometime this month, the sheriff is expected to decide on the punishment for bailiff Tara Pisano, who had an affair with one of Henderson's friends, Circuit Judge Gasper Ficarrotta.

Henderson must also decide the punishment of another friend, Cpl. Mike Sheehan, who is accused along with Pisano of helping Ficarrotta raise campaign funds for Henderson while on duty, a violation of Sheriff's Office policy.

The sheriff is entangled in the investigations by those friendships and by the fundraising that benefited his successful re-election campaign, which raised a total of $296,000.

If Henderson appears to go easy on them, he'll be accused of favoritism. If he comes down hard on Pisano, it will look like payback for getting his friends in trouble.

"I don't know that it is possible to be a win-win for (Henderson) in any way," said longtime political consultant Mary Repper. "I just think it is difficult for the sheriff, no matter how he rules, to look like an unbiased, third-person party in this. No matter how this investigation comes out, I think questions will remain."

Add to the mix Pisano's formidable lawyer, Barry Cohen, who has not been shy about butting heads with sheriff's officials.

"(If) they try to make a scapegoat out of her," Cohen said, "she's not just going to go away."

Pisano and Ficarrotta began a 16-month affair that ended in April 1999. Pisano has said she helped Ficarrotta raise money for Henderson's campaign. Because they must retain their impartiality, judges are prohibited from working on political campaigns.

At the same time, Sheehan was helping Ficarrotta organize campaign fundraisers for Henderson, according to officials. Documents show that Sheehan helped organize a campaign reception in April 1999 at the office of John Bales, who is president of the Hillsborough County Bar Association. It's not known how much the event raised, but Henderson's campaign pulled in $71,103 in contributions that month.

A month earlier, Henderson had gone on a fishing trip with Ficarrotta, Sheehan and Bales. But Henderson insists he did not know at the time that Ficarrotta was helping his campaign. He said politics did not come up during the outing.

"I go fishing and hunting with all kinds of people," Henderson said. "Judges and lawyers and cops and Indian chiefs. All kinds of people."

Henderson said he did not know about Ficarrotta's affair, either. He said he had seen the couple together at the courthouse cafeteria, but didn't think much about it. He said he realized something was going on between them in 1999 when Pisano's husband, Sheriff's Cpl. Carmine Pisano, threatened Ficarrotta. Sheriff's officials were dispatched to the judge's home, but Cpl. Pisano never arrived.

Despite that incident, Henderson said, he did not know for sure that the judge and bailiff were having an affair, and didn't think it was his place to ask.

Later, Henderson said, Pisano told him that the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which regulates judges' conduct, wanted to talk to her about Ficarrotta. Henderson said he told her to tell the commission the truth, but didn't ask about her relationship with Ficarrotta and didn't request an internal affairs investigation.

"I had nothing to investigate," Henderson said. "An affair outside the courthouse is not really the sheriff's business. It has to be related closely to the scope of their duties for me to question them about it."

An affair that takes place while on duty can be considered "conduct unbecoming a member of the Sheriff's Office," an offense punishable by dismissal in some cases.

After the Judicial Qualifications Commission began investigating Ficarrotta, a grand jury convened in September 2000 to look into another judge began examining Ficarrotta's conduct, including allegations that he was angry the affair had ended and had threatened to use his friendship with Henderson to damage Pisano's career.

Henderson testified before the grand jury. So did Ficarrotta, who resigned from the bench before the grand jury completed its work.

In December, the grand jury found that the affair had occurred at the courthouse during business hours. It also said Pisano and Sheehan had done campaign work while on duty.

The grand jury called on Henderson to conduct internal affairs investigations.

"Given the price which Judge Ficarrotta has paid, we believe simple fairness demands that the conduct of his partners not go unexamined," the grand jury wrote.

Henderson followed the grand jury's recommendation, and the investigations are now awaiting supervising officers' decisions on the punishment. Once those decisions are made, the cases will go before Henderson for review.

Despite all that has happened, Henderson and Ficarrotta remain friends. At lunch after the grand jury's report was released, Henderson said, Ficarrotta told him his campaign work had been minor.

"He told me he had three phone calls," Henderson said. "It wasn't like he was out beating the bushes."

Henderson said he does not believe what he called an "unsubstantiated allegation" raised by Pisano that she sometimes saw large sums of money in Ficarrotta's office.

"That is B.S. That never occurred," Henderson said.

Through it all, Henderson has remained unscathed. The grand jury report said he did not know about the campaign fundraising while it occurred.

In retrospect, the fundraising was unnecessary. Henderson's opponent, a 46-year-old write-in candidate, was arrested during the campaign for contempt of court and posed no real challenge.

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