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Report: No proof Bonanno had lied

A panel finds that transcripts from a grand jury investigation show only that the judge deserves a reprimand.

By GRAHAM BRINK
© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 21, 2001


TAMPA -- For months, the lawyer for Hillsborough Circuit Judge Robert Bonanno said the transcripts from a grand jury investigation would help prove his client had not lied about what he was doing in another judge's office after hours last year.

On Tuesday, the Judicial Qualifications Commission released a report that supported that claim.

The JQC, which regulates state judges, said the testimony presented to the grand jurors was "simply insufficient" to prove that Bonanno had lied. The report said that despite the grand jurors' request that Bonanno resign, the evidence warranted the same punishment the JQC recommended before the release of the transcripts: a public reprimand.

"They could not reach any other conclusion because they read what I had read," Bonanno's lawyer, Ralph Fernandez said. "A reprimand is fair, and it's exactly what the case called for, no more."

The case began July 27, 2000, when bailiff Sylvia Gay found Bonanno in Judge Greg Holder's darkened office about 5:20 p.m.

Gay said she saw lights on in the break room and in Holder's private office. She saw a moving shadow or reflection and called out "hello." She waited more than 10 seconds for an answer but got none, according to her grand jury testimony.

Finally, she said, Bonanno came out of Holder's private office. Bonanno told Gay that he had come to the office to talk to Holder. Gay thought Bonanno's behavior was highly suspicious, and Holder demanded a criminal investigation.

"There was no reason for him to be in there, none whatsoever," Gay said.

In June, the grand jurors concluded that Bonanno had trouble keeping his story straight and had demeaned his office by having an affair with a court clerk. They called for him to resign. Such reports, however, have no legal authority and are only advisory.

Bonanno refused to step down.

Last month, the JQC ended a separate investigation with the recommendation that Bonanno receive a public reprimand, a relatively mild punishment. The JQC characterized his actions as a "misstep" and concluded nothing illegal or disgraceful had occurred.

The only thing left was for the Florida Supreme Court's approval of the JQC recommendation for a reprimand. But two weeks ago, the JQC asked that the grand jury transcripts be released. Fernandez, too, wanted the usually secret transcripts made public.

Fernandez said Tuesday that the JQC's decision to stick with a reprimand vindicated his repeated demands to release the transcripts. "All those naysayers who thought I was bluffing when I asked for the transcripts to be releasednow must admit I was right and that my client was right," he said.

The state Supreme Court still must accept the JQC's recommendation. In some cases, the Supreme Court asks for more investigation or ignores the recommendation and levels punishment it deems fit.

In the meantime, Bonanno faces impeachment hearings by a Florida House committee, a rare procedure last used against a judge in 1978.

Lawmakers would act as a kind of grand jury, hearing secret evidence using few formal rules of evidence. Ultimately, the House would have to vote to impeach by a two-thirds majority, and the Senate would then be compelled to begin its own impeachment trial.

Fernandez vowed it would not get that far.

He said he has compiled "extensive" evidence showing how the grand jury was misled by witnesses and State Attorney Jerry Hill, the Polk County prosecutor who led the proceedings. Hill, who could not be reached Tuesday, has said he thought Bonanno changed his story several times and also questioned his fitness to be a judge.

Fernandez said the grand jury process seemed rigged against his client.

"I was surprised we weren't hanged when we walked into the room," he said.

Fernandez did not want to give details of what he had found. He said he would offer all the evidence to the lawmakers at a hearing in Tallahassee next week.

Fernandez said Hill made references to evidence that did not exist and asked questions about past behavior for which he knew Bonanno was exonerated. Hill also made "much ado" about inconsistencies in Bonanno's story that were not inconsistencies at all, but just further details about what happened, Fernandez said.

"This stuff is explosive," he said. "Trust me, even if we capture (Osama) bin Laden on Tuesday, this story will still be on the front page."

- Contact Graham Brink at 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com.

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