3-week stint guarantees state pension
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
© St. Petersburg Times,
When Judge Bonnie Newton lost re-election to the bench amid a judicial investigation, she also lost the chance to be vested in a state pension.
The Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge had served six years and was two years short. A change in the law last year lowered the requirement but still left Newton out -- she had to be on the state payroll as of July 1, 2001, to qualify.
Thanks to some friends in high places, however, Newton is going to get her pension.
Last week, Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer and Judge David Demers, who replaces Schaeffer as chief judge July 1, agreed to temporarily hire Newton as a $12-an-hour law clerk working for their staff counsel.
With that job, taxpayers will pay Newton, 58, a pension of about $18,000 a year when she turns 62.
She began work Monday. She will work until July 6, just long enough to qualify for her pension.
"This was an opportunity to accommodate Bonnie Newton on the pension issue while at the same time benefiting from her expertise," Demers said Thursday. "It seemed to be a good thing to do. It seemed fair to do what we did to help her."
Newton, who has worked in private practice since leaving office, and Schaeffer could not be reached for comment.
Demers said Newton is replacing a vacationing clerk who returns the day she is scheduled to depart, so a new position wasn't created to help her.
The position wasn't advertised. Newton submitted no written application.
"It's a permanent position she's holding for three weeks," Demers said. "I certainly don't view this as favoritism. If I had someone else in the same position and could benefit from their expertise, then that's what I would do. I'd do the same thing for someone else."
To be eligible for the pension, Newton has to be in a permanent, full-time position by July 1, Demers said. Her new job qualifies, though it isn't technically her permanent, full-time position.
"It sounds like the only reason she was hired was because she didn't otherwise qualify for a pension," said Kurt Wenner, a senior analyst with Florida TaxWatch, a government watchdog group.
"It sounds questionable. You shouldn't be hiring public employees for any other reason other than they can do the job and have meaningful value," he said.
Demers, however, said Newton will be an asset to the office, using her expertise as a former family law judge to review family law files to see whether they are ready for a hearing before a special master.
"It's a legitimate position that provides a service," he said.
Demers said he and Schaeffer agreed to the arrangement, though he said Schaeffer first talked to Newton about the job.
State retirement officials could not be reached for comment. Demers, however, said his office checked with retirement officials to verify that getting Newton on the payroll by July 1 would qualify her for a pension.
In March 1998, the Judicial Qualifications Commission charged Newton with being "routinely abusive, demeaning and sarcastic" to the people who appeared in her courtroom and began proceedings that could have led to her removal from the bench.
The commission also accused Newton of ignoring Florida law in the way she handled divorce cases, favoring some lawyers while punishing others who crossed her, hiding court files and jailing a woman illegally.
But before the judicial watchdog group could try her on the charges, Newton resoundingly lost re-election, making the charges moot. She left office in January 1999.
Though Newton's new position qualifies as a permanent, full-time job under state law, Demers said it is only 20 hours a week.
"This is a permanent position that actually exists," Demers said. "We didn't create it for her, nor would we have done that."
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