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Lawyers testify in judge's inquiry

A grand jury continues its work in the case prompted by the discovery of Judge Robert Bonanno in Judge Greg Holder's office.

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 2, 2000


TAMPA -- Hillsborough County grand jurors on Wednesday heard from seven more witnesses as they sort through numerous accusations involving judges at the courthouse.

The list of witnesses suggests that most of the questioning centered on whether Judge Gasper Ficarrotta was involved in campaign fundraising for Hillsborough Sheriff Cal Henderson. Judges are forbidden from raising money for political candidates.

The jurors, who met behind closed doors for the fourth time in a month, heard first from Hillsborough Bar president John Bales, who testified for about an hour. He was followed by several other attorneys, including Bennie Lazzara, John McLaughlin and Ficarrotta's lawyer, Gary Trombley. They did not comment afterward.

"I'm really impressed (with the jurors)," said Polk County State Attorney Jerry Hill, appointed by the governor to investigate various courthouse scandals. "They are really involved. ... Very concerned."

The jurors began meeting after a bailiff found Judge Robert Bonanno in Judge Greg Holder's office after hours in July. The bailiff said she was startled and thought Bonanno was trying to hide.

Bonanno said he was simply there to talk with Holder. Holder demanded an investigation,and the governor appointed Hill.

During the investigation, speculation arose that Bonanno may have been in the office looking for information he thought Holder had regarding Ficarrotta's affair with bailiff Tara Pisano. Pisano had been serving as Holder's bailiff on Fridays and is a close friend of Holder's regular bailiff.

The inquiry expanded into whether Ficarrotta asked lawyers to contribute to Henderson's campaign or influenced them in some way to give. Henderson has said that if Ficarrotta was raising money for him, he wasn't aware of it.

Pisano testified before the grand jury last month, along with Holder, Chief Judge Dennis Alvarez and other courthouse personnel. Bonanno has not yet testified but has said through his lawyer that he will cooperate.

Amid a separate investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission, Ficarrotta said last week that he will resign at the end of the year. He did say whether he had raised money for Henderson.

The grand jury meets again next week and might finish hearing testimony by the end of the month, Hill said. When the inquiry concludes, the jurors can indict or decline to indict on criminal charges. They can also can issue a "presentment," a report of their investigations and any recommendations they have.

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