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Sheriff's fish tale: hook, line and sinker?

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 13, 2001


Being a fool for tilting at windmills, I'll say it:

If they can abolish the Florida Board of Regents -- because universities aren't important enough -- then why can't they dump the office of sheriff?

One of two things happen when somebody gets elected to the job.

Neither has to do with whether you will be the victim of a home invasion.

Because cop shops are notorious political hothouses, the bickering and back-stabbing gets so out of hand the sucker who wins gets the boot after one term.

Or because cop shops are notorious political hothouses, the sheriff gets elected and re-elected until he and everybody around him confuses election with coronation. And no matter what he does, the sheriff grins and his friends pat his back and ain't life grand?

It is not so grand at the moment for Cal Henderson, a sheriff of the second variety and the sheriff of Hillsborough County.

You could hear it is in his voice Monday. The squirm. The defensiveness.

"I don't really talk about my personal time," he said.

Henderson has been saying for months that he never knew a judge and a lowly sheriff's corporal with an amazing amount of personal muscle were raising money for his re-election campaign in 1999.

But over the weekend, he admitted that a month before his first big fundraising party, he went on a fishing trip with his buddy, Gasper Ficarrotta, who at the time was a Hillsborough circuit judge.

Must have been coincidence. They talked about the difference between spinners and shiners, you can be assured. Never talked about campaign parties, Henderson said.

Ficarrotta has already taken a fall. He resigned before he got axed by state investigators who said he raised money for the sheriff and had an affair with his bailiff.

Judges aren't supposed to raise money for candidates. You can see why. Might taint their decisions.

Ficarrotta's girlfriend told the investigators that Ficarrotta was raising the money with Cpl. Mike Sheehan, who worked at the courthouse.

Sheehan was also on the fishing trip.

Comes the second fall. Sheehan took his Friday. Magically, he went into the sheriff's office and asked to be transferred from his cushy, comfy job in the air-conditioned courthouse protecting judges (regrettably not very well) back to street patrol.

Sheehan did this on his own.

He must like separating couples trying to kill each other. Calming accident victims who just saw their lives flash before them. Standing out in the hot sun. Writing reports.

This was a man so connected that Sheehan rode in the Gasparilla parade last month with Chief Judge Dennis Alvarez, according to the Tampa Tribune.

Sheehan was so connected that he has been, until recently, the only sheriff's official on the internal courthouse e-mail list that enables judges to talk to administrative personnel and one another. Not even Sheehan's supervising lieutenant and captain were on it.

That last does not come from Henderson, but from Circuit Judge Greg Holder.

If you've been following with your scorecard, another judge got caught snooping in Holder's office last summer and then all these tacky stories surfaced about judges having sex with people they shouldn't be having sex with, and people who shouldn't be raising money for people raising money for them.

There was a fourth person on the fishing trip, John Bales, then the head of the county bar association and another participant in the fundraiser.

He's not a state employee. Nothing can happen to him. Lawyers raise money for judges and sheriffs all the time, which is perfectly legal, even though it should give any reasonable nobody a first-class case of the goosebumps.

There I go. Tilting at windmills again.

Silly me. Almost as silly as wondering whether the sheriff didn't know.

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