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Teacher Gatti will face another judge

The Department of Education will try to revoke Joseph Gatti's teaching license. His attorney says: ''This isn't prosecution. It's persecution.''

By ROBERT KING

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 28, 2001


The Department of Education will try to revoke Joseph Gatti's teaching license. His attorney says: "This isn't prosecution. It's persecution."

BROOKSVILLE -- Joseph Gatti, who won convincingly the last time he was in court three years ago, must return to defend himself again on the child molestation and misconduct charges that have plagued him for 41/2 years.

County Judge Peyton Hyslop dismissed a Gatti lawsuit Wednesday that could have forced the state Department of Education to end its effort to revoke Gatti's teaching license.

That means Gatti, who turns 41 on Friday, must battle the Education Department in front of an administrative law judge, probably this fall.

At issue will be whether Gatti, a technology coordinator at Powell Middle School, did anything contrary to the state's code of conduct for teachers. Gatti faces familiar allegations that he had inappropriate sexual contact with two male students and that he showed students pornographic pictures from the Internet.

But he must also answer to charges that his relationship was inappropriate because he gave the boys money, bought them gifts, helped them land steep discounts on admission to a Vermont summer camp where he worked, and bought one of them a beeper.

He also stands accused of acting to undermine the authority of the parents of the boy who was his chief accuser and disregarding their requests to stay away from the child. The incidents were alleged to have taken place between 1994 and 1997.

In one way or another, Gatti has fought off the charges before.

Four years ago, the criminal charges based on the sex allegations were dropped by prosecutors or dismissed by a judge because the boys kept changing their stories.

Three years ago, the School Board asked administrative law Judge Suzanne F. Hood to help decide whether Gatti did anything that would result in his firing. Considering basically the same charges he faces now, Hood found that Gatti engaged in no sex acts.

So what's different now?

Investigators from the Education Department have conducted their own investigation apart from anything that's gone before, said JoAnn Carrin, a spokeswoman for the department.

It's possible there will be new testimony, witnesses and evidence this time, she said.

And instead of aiming at criminal laws or the terms of Gatti's teaching contract, the facts will be applied this time to the Principles of Professional Conduct for the Education Profession, Carrin said.

Mark Herdman, Gatti's attorney, said he can't imagine that after 41/2 years of scrutiny there's any new evidence. In fact, he says, finding old witnesses may be tough given the passage of time.

Gatti's purchase of a pager and assistance with summer camp costs -- things that Gatti has acknowledged under oath already -- were done with the permission of the boys' parents, Herdman said.

"This isn't prosecution. It's persecution," said Herdman. "Why is the state of Florida going this far to get Joe Gatti? It ought to scare the hell out of everybody."

He added, "This branch of government has clearly run amok."

Herdman wanted to point that out to a circuit judge with the lawsuit. But Hyslop said Herdman must first tell it to an administrative law judge.

Hyslop's order won't become final for another two weeks. Before then, Herdman could try to amend the lawsuit to keep it alive. But he said that's a long shot, at best, and he's readying himself for the administrative law judge.

Carrin defended the Education Department's slow-footedness by saying it takes time to gather evidence. She acknowledged, however, that turnover in the agency's legal department may have contributed to the delay.

Regardless of how long it takes, she said the case needs to run its course.

"The most important thing here is protecting students in the state of Florida and not subjecting them to educators who are inclined to take advantage of them," she said.

- Times staff writer Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com. Discuss this and other issues in our Web-based discussion forum at www.sptimes.com/hernandoforum.

A STORY WITHOUT END

It has been 4 1/2 years since Joseph Gatti was led away from Powell Middle School in handcuffs. Yet his legal troubles stemming from the molestation allegation linger. Here's a chronology of the Gatti case:

DEC. 5, 1996: Teacher Joseph Gatti is arrested at Powell Middle School on 12 sex charges and one count of interfering with custody. Three former students accuse him of molesting them. Immediately, Gatti is suspended with pay.

DEC. 9, 1996: Gatti's bail is set at $100,000. Two days later he is freed after two supporters mortgage their homes to secure his bond.

DEC. 16, 1996: An allegation surfaces that Gatti molested one of the boys on a boating trip in Citrus County, and he is charged there with another count of lewd and lascivious conduct.

JAN. 8, 1997: Gatti pleads innocent to all charges.

JAN. 23, 1997: The School Board places Gatti on unpaid suspension.

JAN. 30, 1997: Gatti is hit with another sex charge, this time by prosecutors in Orange County. It comes in response to an allegation he molested one of the boys in the parking lot at Walt Disney World. He posts $10,000 bail and is released.

FEB. 8, 1997: In a housekeeping effort, prosecutors amend the list of charges he faces in Hernando County to nine sex offenses and one count of interference with custody.

MAY 27, 1997: After weeks of legal maneuvering, the first of what is expected to be three trials begins. But prosecutor Anthony Tatti, saying he hasn't had time to contact key witnesses, asks for a delay. Judge William Law refuses and four of the charges are dropped.

MAY 28, 1997: Law throws out another case against Gatti when prosecutors establish only that Gatti's hand brushed the crotch of a student who, now 16, acknowledges he first told police it was an accident. Tatti drops two more charges, saying he will use the evidence in a remaining case. But after two days in court, Gatti faces only one charge in each of the three counties.

SEPT. 3, 1997: State attorney Brad King drops the remaining charges against Gatti in Hernando and Citrus counties. Tatti, the state attorney's lead prosecutor, said the case was not winnable because his key witness, a 16-year-old boy, had changed his story too many times.

OCT. 10, 1997: Orange County prosecutors drop the last remaining charge against Gatti. Orange prosecutor Basil Valdivia says the more he learned about the case the less convincing it seemed.

OCT. 27, 1997: Gatti returns to work, but in a district office job away from students. Superintendent John Sanders says the assignment is temporary until the district concludes its internal investigation.

MARCH 26, 1998: The School Board asks an administrative law judge to decide for them whether Gatti should be fired or allowed to return to the classroom. A 10-day hearing -- which deals with accusations from only two students -- is held in May in Inverness before administrative law judge Suzanne F. Hood.

MAY 20, 1998: Even before Hood has a chance to rule, Gatti announces he will run for School Board. He says he had considered years before but was not eager to become a public figure. Now that he's already a public figure, he says nothing holds him back.

SEPT. 10, 1998: Administrative law judge Suzanne F. Hood rules there is no evidence that Gatti ever molested the students. She recommends that Gatti be returned to the classroom with back pay. The School Board later follows the recommendation.

OCT. 12, 1998: Gatti returns to his job as technology coordinator at Powell Middle School. Many parents welcome him back, even though some encouraged their children to not be alone with him. Deborah Burge, the stepmother of Gatti's chief accuser, protests outside the school.

NOV. 3, 1998: Gatti is defeated in his bid for the School Board. Incumbent Sandra Nicholson wins 50 of 51 precincts but only 60 percent of the vote. Regardless of the result, Gatti says, the campaign helped him by putting his name out in the community in a positive light.

NOV. 10, 1998: Chip Mander, the defense attorney who fought Gatti's legal battles, submits a $291,204.33 bill for Gatti's legal expenses to the School Board. Mander says the board is obligated to pay since Gatti's troubles began while he was working for the School Board and Gatti was exonerated.

MAY 4, 1999: The School Board declines Mander's request to pay Gatti's legal bills.

NOV. 23, 1999: The Florida Department of Education challenges Gatti's teaching certificate. It alleges he gave a student gifts, money, use of his personal credit card, undermined the authority of a student's parents and failed to notify authorities when the student ran away. But the complaint makes no mention of the sexual misconduct.

JUNE 29, 2000: Florida's Department of Education voluntarily dismisses its complaint against Gatti. Still, education officials leave open the possibility they could refile the charges. They give no explanation for their actions.

SEPT. 11, 2000: Then-education commissioner Tom Gallagher refiles the complaint against Gatti's teaching license, this time including the allegations of sexual misconduct.

OCT. 18, 2000: Gatti sues Gallagher. He contends the Department of Education's delay in filing the most recent complaint -- nearly four years after his arrest -- violates his constitutional right to due process.

JUNE 27, 2001: Hernando County Judge Peyton Hyslop dismisses Gatti's lawsuit against the Department of Education. Hyslop says Gatti can bring his due process concerns to the administrative law judge who will hear the education department's challenge against his license.

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