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By SUE CARLTON
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 2000
TAMPA -- A former court clerk for Circuit Judge Robert Bonanno has been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury today, another indication the inquiry has expanded beyond what Bonanno was doing in a fellow judge's office after hours.
Joan Helms, a longtime clerk who worked in Bonanno's court, said Tuesday she had "no idea" why she was called but would be there to answer questions. She was not working with Bonanno in July, when he was accused of lurking in Circuit Judge Greg Holder's chambers after hours while Holder was out of town.
That leaves open to speculation why Helms is being called and what she will be asked. In a courthouse rocked by allegations, Bonanno has been the subject of any number of rumors, including one about how some cases were assigned to his division.
Cases are supposed to be randomly sent to judges to prevent favoritism, or lawyers shopping for friendly judges.
"I've heard case-transferring rumors, and several other unfounded rumors a number of times," said attorney Ralph Fernandez. "This one doesn't trouble me, legally or factually. There's nothing there."
Fernandez said special prosecutor Jerry Hill "has an option of calling anyone he wishes in this investigation. I don't know why he's calling the people he's calling.
"This is supposed to be a case about a break-in," Fernandez said.
Hill, state attorney from Polk County, was assigned by the governor to look into the allegations regarding Holder's chambers. Hill took the matter to a Hillsborough grand jury.
Some of the people called to testify, however, have been related to other courthouse matters, the clearest evidence that the probe has grown. Several witnesses were linked to allegations that Circuit Judge Gasper Ficarrotta was improperly involved in raising campaign funds for Hillsborough Sheriff Cal Henderson. Recently, Ficarrotta resigned.
Today, Bonanno will appear before the grand jury to answer questions, his attorney said.
"You can bet your life Bonanno's not going to take the Fifth Amendment," Fernandez said.
Helms has worked at the courthouse since 1983. Court clerks generally are responsible for maintaining and processing court paperwork and records. They also handle evidence, swear in juries and read verdicts.
Helms rotated among several civil judges and spent a year in a trial court with Bonanno, a supervisor said. Last year, she left the clerk's office for a position with the court's family intake department.
- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Sue Carlton can be reached at (813)226-3346 or carlton@sptimes.