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Judge's e-mail to women detailed

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Edward Ward has been accused of sexual harassment. He says he will fight the charges.

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2000


TAMPA -- The e-mails began as regular banter between judicial colleagues, talk of books and movies and organizing upcoming trials.

As the weeks passed, they turned increasingly suggestive, particularly when Circuit Judge Edward Ward invited a married judge to meet for a private happy hour and "an exotic, close dance and hope that our heavy breathing does not ignite the sprinklers," according to court documents released Thursday.

The release of the e-mails is the latest step in an investigation opened last year by the state Judicial Qualifications Commission into complaints about Ward.

The JQC, after obtaining the e-mails and interviewing courthouse workers, concluded in March that Ward, a judge in Hillsborough for 18 years, had engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment.

Ward, 63, admitted last month to kissing a female judge, inviting a judicial assistant into his office for beer and sending personal e-mails to two other women. But he denied his conduct constituted sexual harassment and made it clear he would contest the charges.

Later this year, both sides will present their cases at a hearing before a six-member panel. The Florida Supreme Court will have the final say on any punishment, which could range from a reprimand to his removal from the bench.

"Judge Ward did not intend to sexually harass anyone," his lawyer, Ben Hill, said Thursday.

According to the records made public Thursday, Ward was corresponding on the computer with Circuit Judge Claudia Isom in January 1998 about their upcoming skit at the courthouse luncheon. They were deciding which song to perform, what to wear and whether to include any dance steps.

They both joked about their lack of talent, and Isom wrote that she'd need to get "that long-awaited liposuction" if they were to perform a Sonny and Cher tune. Isom signed off after one of those innocuous e-mails with "Waiting in Breathless Anticipation."

A couple of months after the skits at the Columbia restaurant in Ybor City, Ward sent the following e-mail: "What we should do someday is "sneak' down to the Columbia for our own little (& private) "happy hour' replete with a margarita -- or two or three depending on what it takes to lower the inhibitions -- and ease into the banquet room, mount the stage, and either up front -- if no one is there -- or backstage -- for the discreet and cowardly -- do an exotic close dance."

Ward then suggested some music for their "encounter" and said he would be ready if she wanted to go through with it. "Are you game?" he asked, and signed it "Lover Boy."

The next day, Ward sent a message titled, "Is No News, Good News? Or Does Silence Mean Acceptance?"

An hour later, he wrote that he assumed Isom's silence meant she wanted him to stop that line of messages. Isom responded: "Your assumption is correct. Please cease and desist."

With Michelle Boylan, a judicial assistant, the e-mails began with discussions of upcoming trials and jury selection. Ward also recommended some books and movies to Boylan, who thanked him for the suggestions.

"E-mailing is great but, to tell the truth, I think computers stif(le) communication skills on a personal basis and, really, I prefer face-to-face encounters . . . if you know what I mean," he wrote on Jan. 19, 1998.

They also discussed Ward's membership at a local gym and whether Boylan was going to join. Once she joined, Ward sent several e-mails describing how he felt when he saw her working out.

"Shame on you for distracting me and getting my mind off the game," he wrote at the end of January 1998. "You will have to advise as to your schedule so I can plan (racquetball) breaks accordingly for inspiration."

Boylan, who has two young sons, said she tried but failed to discourage the suggestive messages by bringing up her family.

A week later, Ward, who is married, asked Boylan to join him at the gym for low-impact aerobics, asking her not to be shy and signing off with "Your e-mail buddy." In a separate e-mail the same day he told her that she always looked like a "million bucks." She thanked him for thinking of her, especially when she wasn't feeling well.

Eight minutes later, he sent another message.

"In case you hadn't noticed, I think you are special and have thought so since the first day you strolled in as a sub," he wrote. "Can't help it. Do you really mind? Plz. advise."

There was no response to that e-mail included in the e-mails released Thursday.

The few days later, he wrote: "If appearances mean anything, you must be feeling better. You looked like a $1,000,000 (before taxes) this a.m. when you were climbing the stairs." In another message titled "Sweat can be beautiful!" Ward lamented not seeing Boylan at the gym.

Soon after, Boylan told her boss, Judge Dick Greco Jr., and eventually Chief Judge Dennis Alvarez found out and began inquiring.

Hill pointed out that Ward stopped any behavior the women deemed inappropriate immediately upon being asked. Hill also said that Isom and Boylan and the two other women mentioned by the JQC as being harassed told Alvarez that they didn't want to file formal complaints.

"They didn't see it as bad enough to warrant that type of attention," Hill said.

- Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or at brink@sptimes.com.

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