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Holt had workers do personal tasks

The Hillsborough public defender says she did nothing wrong and the accusations are part of a vendetta against her.

By AMY HERDY and GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 21, 2000


TAMPA -- As a young law student, Melissa Dearing hoped to get practical experience at the Hillsborough County Public Defender's Office.

Instead, Dearing says, she spent much of her time tending to the personal affairs of her boss, Public Defender Julianne Holt.

She typed campaign letters, filled out Holt's lengthy application to practice law in Texas and wrote lesson plans for Holt's part-time teaching job at Hillsborough Community College, Dearing said.

Today, Dearing is a 27-year-old labor lawyer in Jacksonville. She does not have fond memories of her time with Holt. "I had some real issues with her once I left and realized normal professionals don't do that to you," she said.

Others say they also spent public time on Holt's private affairs.

Interviews of former employees show a boss who asked her staff to spend hundreds of work hours tending to her personal and political needs, even though Florida law prohibits elected officials from using public resources for personal or political gain.

Wanda Moore, Holt's secretary for more than a year, says she was expected to babysit Holt's child in the office and did so a half-dozen times.

Sharon Slater, Holt's secretary for four years, says Holt once sent her to her South Tampa home to wait for more than an hour for the pool man to arrive.

Scott Moore, a computer technician for Holt for three years and Dearing's brother, says he installed appliances and made repairs at Holt's home.

Joe Moore, a process server for Holt, says he frequently delivered checks to Holt's campaign treasurer and made personal bank deposits for Holt.

None of the employees complained about the work they did, they say, for fear of getting fired.

Slater, however, kept copious records of work she did -- hundreds of copies of letters and memos on paper and on computer discs. She kept the records, she said, for the same reason she decided to tell her story now: "I couldn't stand what she was doing to other people. . . . Somebody needed to come forward."

The computer discs show the work was done during work hours. Much of it included typing letters seeking support or thanking supporters during Holt's successful 1996 re-election campaign. One document, kept on a computer in Holt's office, tracked the location of Holt's campaign yard signs.

Other records show how Holt's secretaries spent hundreds of hours working on her teaching jobs at local colleges, for which she earned up to $2,500 a semester. The secretaries even graded tests Holt had given students. Holt's annual financial disclosures do not include all of her teaching income.

"Those are the types of things we have seen in the past that have gotten public officials into real trouble," said Polk County State Attorney Jerry Hill, who has investigated public corruption cases throughout Florida. "The rules are pretty clear: State employees are not paid tax dollars to do someone's personal work."

Holt, 45, who makes $125,375 a year, was elected public defender in 1992 and is running for her third four-year term. As public defender, she oversees an office of more than 150 employees including about 65 lawyers who represent indigent clients charged in criminal cases.

Holt denied ever forcing any of her employees to take care of her personal affairs on state time. Many of her employees volunteered to help, she said.

"I've read the statutes and I don't think that anything that I've done is wrong whatsoever in the context of what we are discussing," she said Tuesday.

She said any campaign work her employees did was on their own time or done without her knowledge or consent.

Holt called her accusers "disgruntled former employees," mostly from one family, who have a personal vendetta against her. She called most of them liars and said they are trying to sabotage her bid for a third term.

She also denied ever sending any employee to her house to wait for the pool man and said Slater left her office unhappy over the way an internal theft was handled.

"With everything I've done for them on a personal level, this offends me and it hurts," Holt said.

Three secretaries, same story

Slater went to work for Holt in January 1993 after six years with the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office. She spent the next six years at the public defender's office, four of them as Holt's secretary, from 1993 to 1997. She was paid $31,000 a year when she left in April 1999 to become a legal secretary.

"When I look back over what I did, I don't remember working on cases," said Slater, 39.

Slater said she often took Holt's car to be serviced, routinely made hair and doctor appointments for Holt's mother and typed numerous campaign letters. One typical letter, dated Oct. 17, 1996, thanked a Tampa doctor for allowing Holt to put a yard sign at his office.

Slater said she also kept track of dozens of Holt's campaign signs, and the names, addresses and phone numbers of supporters.

Her single biggest task, Slater said, involved Holt's part-time teaching job at Hillsborough Community College. Slater said she typed syllabuses, lesson plans and tests for Holt's American government class, and administered and graded the tests.

Her duties were never spelled out, she said. Instead, she simply did whatever Holt asked, often behind a partially closed door. "She would say she didn't want anybody to see me working on it."

One personal project of Holt's that took about four months, Slater said, was Holt's application to practice law in Texas. Filling out the 26-page application in the fall of 1995 required Slater to spend more than 20 hours researching cases Holt had handled in her private legal practice. When it became clear the project was too time-consuming for one person, Slater said, Melissa Dearing was brought in to assist.

Dearing worked for Holt during five summers beginning in 1993 and ending in 1997, one year after she began law school. She also worked full time as Holt's secretary from April to December 1995. About half her work as Holt's secretary was personal, she said, including work on the Texas Bar application.

Holt became a member of the Texas Bar in September 1997.

Dearing said she also helped Holt with her teaching job.

"I would prepare the exams, prepare lesson plans, give them the test and grade it," Dearing recalled. "She would give me the stuff to do and she was pretty specific about not letting certain people see me do it."

Another former secretary, Wanda Moore, said her $35,000 a year job included babysitting about a half-dozen times for Holt's 1-year-old daughter, in the office during work hours. Holt said Moore volunteered to look after her daughter and other employees often brought their kids to the office.

Moore worked at the public defender's office from June 1993 until last month, when she says she was fired because she is married to Scott Moore, whom Holt fired May 4.

Mrs. Moore was Holt's secretary from August 1998 to October 1999. Besides babysitting, she said, her duties included typing schoolwork for criminal justice classes Holt taught at the University of South Florida and the University of Tampa. She also says she gave tests in the office.

"Whenever a student would miss (a test), Julie would say, "You have to give the test,' " Moore recalled.

Holt confirmed that her secretaries helped with the school work and the bar application. She said teaching criminal justice classes and joining other bar associations enhance the image of the public defenders office, so she felt justified in having her secretaries help.

Her secretaries did make personal appointments for her, Holt said, but only because they all agreed it made scheduling her business calendar easier.

Errands and repairs

Joe Moore, Mrs. Moore's father-in-law and a process server for Holt for more than seven years, says part of his $32,500 job included regularly making Holt's personal bank deposits, dropping off lesson plans to the criminology department at USF and delivering campaign checks to Holt's campaign treasurer, Mark Wilson.

Holt said she and Moore were long-time friends and he often volunteered to run errands for her on his own time without her asking.

Moore, 54, said Holt asked him and his son, Scott Moore, to hand-deliver her application for a state judgeship to Lakeland.

Holt acknowledged that, but said there was nothing improper. Just like having her secretaries help with the teaching jobs and the bar application, Holt said having a public defender appointed to the bench would enhance the prestige of the office.

"I believe that is in the further administration of the judicial system and the criminal justice system and I think it is something that is routinely done," she said.

Moore was fired last month, he says for complaining about fellow employees having sex in the office. Moore says he caught a man and woman having sex on the floor of the Information/Technology office one Saturday morning about two months ago. When he complained, he said, Holt accused him of spreading false rumors. "I saw what I saw," he said.

Holt fired Moore because she believed he was lying.

Moore's son Scott, 30, was a computer technician for Holt for three years, but says his duties also included work on Holt's home. He said he repaired leaky faucets, installed ceiling fans, pulled up carpet when it was ruined by a leaky roof, replaced countertops in her bathroom and delivered and installed a refrigerator and dryer.

Some of the work was done during regular work hours, Moore said, some on weekends. Holt never paid him extra, he said.

Moore was fired last month, he says for allegedly printing out a copy of office salaries, a charge he denies. The St. Petersburg Times reported last week that Moore alleges Holt condoned the pirating of software for office computers.

Moore's brother Michael, a mail clerk for Holt for five years, says he helped pick up and install the refrigerator and dryer at Holt's home. Michael Moore said he was not paid extra for the tasks. He also was fired last month, he says because of his brother's firing.

Receipts from Badcock Home Furnishing dated Sept. 8 and Sept. 12, 1998, list the public defender's office as Holt's address. The receipt shows a 25 percent "charitable discount" on the $1,000 refrigerator and $400 dryer.

Store owner Coleman Davis said Holt was given the discount "just because she's a friend of mine," Davis said. "It has nothing to do with charity."

Holt said she knew the Moores were installing the appliances, but that both agreed to take a day off from work to do it. Holt said it was just another way the Moores are trying to twist something innocent to make it seem sinister.

-- Times staff writer Jeff Testerman contributed to this report.

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