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    Courthouse misconduct penalties vary widely

    An affair draws a 10-day suspension, while improper campaigning results in only one day.

    By SUE CARLTON

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2001


    TAMPA -- Two sheriff's deputies involved in a courthouse scandal have been handed distinctly different punishments.

    For bailiff Tara Pisano, who admitted a courthouse affair with a judge but said it never happened during work hours, a 10-day unpaid suspension.

    For Cpl. Mike Sheehan, who was helping the sheriff get re-elected when he was supposed to be working, a one-day unpaid suspension.

    The question for sheriff's officials, caught in a delicate investigation that involves their boss, his friends and his campaign: Were Pisano's actions really 10 times worse than Sheehan's?

    "I don't think it's a measure of degree," sheriff's Maj. Jose Docobo, who oversees internal affairs, said Thursday. "You're talking about two completely different sets of circumstances."

    Last year, those circumstances were the stuff of headlines, a grand jury investigation, assorted judicial inquiries and the resignation of longtime Circuit Judge Gasper Ficarrotta.

    Ficarrotta and Pisano had an extramarital affair that lasted about 15 months and included sexual encounters in his private chambers. But the relationship ended badly in 1999 and Pisano hired a lawyer, saying she feared for her job and family.

    An investigation made public salacious details of their liaisons, as well as allegations that the judge had been involved in raising re-election money for the sheriff, who considers him a friend. Judges are forbidden from getting involved in political campaigns.

    In the internal affairs report, sheriff's officials found that Pisano, 38, had "destroyed public respect and confidence in the office" and displayed "conduct unbecoming a member of the Sheriff's Office," an offense punishable by dismissal.

    Pisano, who has been reassigned to the jail but is out on medical leave, could not be reached for comment Thursday. But investigative records show she is objecting to the suspension.

    "I do not believe the Sheriff's Office should resort to disciplining employees for private, off-duty personal relationships," she wrote in a response to superiors. "Although (it was) a regrettable and inappropriate personal decision, I am being sanctioned for an off-duty personal relationship."

    None of the encounters took place during her work hours, but one may have occurred when Circuit Judge Greg Holder was in his courtroom next door with lawyers, she told investigators.

    Although a spokesman for Pisano's law firm said Thursday only that Pisano is "weighing all her options," her lawyer, Barry Cohen, was more specific in February.

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

    Ficarrotta, who appeared before a grand jury last year, declined to be interviewed by internal affairs investigators.

    Hillsborough Sheriff Cal Henderson has said he did not know about the affair. But Pisano told investigators she believed he knew of the relationship, though she said she didn't speak with him about it until it was over.

    The investigation into the affair also revealed an unusually close relationship between the judge and Cpl. Mike Sheehan, who worked at the courthouse providing security for judges. Both worked on the sheriff's 2000 re-election campaign, and Sheehan did so while he was on duty, investigators found.

    Under questioning, Sheehan, 54, said his efforts included keeping a list of lawyers invited to a campaign reception and keeping track of contribution checks. He recalled picking up checks from lawyers' offices, at least once accompanied by the judge he considered his best friend. Sheehan said he considered himself to be on "break time" when he performed those tasks.

    Sheehan also recalled accompanying the sheriff to the law firm of Macfarlane Ferguson during the campaign so Henderson could be introduced to the lawyers.

    Did the sheriff know Sheehan was on duty and therefore breaking Sheriff's Office policy?

    "He probably would have thought that I was on a break or comp time or whatever," Sheehan told investigators. "No . . . he wouldn't have been aware of what I was doing."

    Sheehan was found to have violated a Sheriff's Office policy against engaging in political activity while on duty or in uniform or using his position for politics.

    His one-day suspension is the maximum punishment for violating that policy.

    Sheehan also was questioned about sharing a bank safety deposit box with Ficarrotta. He told investigators the judge offered to let him and his wife have it for personal use.

    Sheriff's officials said Sheehan's prior discipline, a 15-day suspension in 1986, was too old to figure into this case. A supervisor wrote him up for "poor judgment" and "abusing his privileges on the job," and he was reassigned from the position of school resource officer at Dowdell Junior High. Details, however, are scarce. Records have been purged and some members of the Sheriff's Office have refused to discuss the incident or said they could not recall it.

    Sheehan, who voluntarily left the courthouse recently to become a patrol deputy, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

    Pisano also received a letter of reprimand for some clerical work she performed on duty for Henderson's campaign.

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