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    Halls of justice just filthy with skeletons

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    By MARY JO MELONE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 12, 2000


    I never thought I'd say this.

    Ralph Fernandez and I have much in common.

    Fernandez is a lawyer. Not just any lawyer. Next to E.J. Salcines, he is the most famous abogado to come out of West Tampa.

    I do not say we have a lot in common because he recently called me "a respected columnist" in a legal brief.

    (Clearly I am doing something wrong. Or Ralph has fallen on his head.)

    Fernandez wants to keep a grand jury from sticking its nose into some corners of the Hillsborough County Courthouse.

    I swear he's reading my playbook. When people come to my house, I'm also scared of what they'll find.

    The doorbell rings and I break into a panic, heart palpitations and all. Please, I think to myself, don't pull back the shower curtain. Don't look at the dishes with the dried food on them in the sink. Don't do the white glove test on my windowsills. If you sit on mushy bits of cereal when you plop down on the sofa, just stand up and brush it off your clothes and don't say anything so we both think you're just rearranging yourself to get more comfortable. Then I'll offer you another glass of wine and be the wonderful hostess I desperately want you to think I am.

    Ralph is also desperate.

    He cannot be blamed for this. He represents Hillsborough Circuit Judge Robert Bonanno, who got caught this past summer snooping in another judge's chambers. Stupidity is not a crime, so Bonanno probably won't even be charged with trespass. Every judge in the courthouse has a key to every other judge's chambers.

    But that priceless moment Bonanno got caught was like a puff of smoke at the top of a hill that signaled a fire below.

    Why would Bonanno be in the office of Judge Greg Holder, no pal of his. Could it have been because he knew that some bailiffs were telling Holder stories about funny business in the building?

    Judges sleeping around.

    Improper campaign contribution solicitations.

    And some of the information written down by a bailiff who had an affair with one of the judges.

    My, oh my.

    There is further evidence that Ralph Fernandez has bumped his head.

    When it comes to trying to limit the grand jury, it appears he's shouting into the wind. The grand jury is presided over by Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer. I asked her Wednesday if its inquiry can be limited.

    Her answer was couched in the "probably not" of a cautious judge.

    But I read that as a big old no.

    Schaeffer said the law gives the grand jury the right to go where it wants. Same for the special prosecutor brought in to lead it, Jerry Hill. It doesn't matter if Bob Bonanno is never charged. Hill can keep looking. Hill was appointed by the governor in an order with language as broad as Payne's Prairie.

    He can get into everything relating "to the investigation, prosecution and representation of the state of Florida in all matters pertaining to or arising from any investigation or allegations involving Judge Robert H. Bonanno."

    That would be like giving my guests the run of my house, both floors, all the closets, all the dog and cat hair. Then one of them could pick up the phone, dial 911, and Martha Stewart would show up and arrest me.

    I never thought I'd say this.

    I feel almost sorry for Ralph Fernandez.

    In my house, the dirt is on top of the rug, plain as day. In the courthouse, the dirt is under the rug. Even this famous abogado isn't going to be able to stop the grand jury from lifting it up and taking a peek.

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