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Panel expands Bonanno inquiry

A House committee considering his impeachment will review allegations going back years.

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 28, 2001


A House committee considering his impeachment will review allegations going back years.

TALLAHASSEE -- Hillsborough Circuit Judge Robert Bonanno's problems got bigger Tuesday.

The House committee considering Bonanno's impeachment for entering another judge's office last year now will investigate nine other allegations, some dating back more than 10 years, that Bonanno abused his power as a judge and prosecutor.

The chairman of the House Judicial Oversight Committee said Tuesday he will depose witnesses and attempt to obtain records about an alleged pattern of misconduct by Bonanno over the last decade.

"The more I look at Judge Bonanno, there are questions that need to be answered," said state Rep. Larry Crow, R-Dunedin.

Crow and committee lawyers will interview witnesses in Tampa and report back to the full committee by January. Then, the House could decide whether to impeach a judge for the first time in a quarter-century.

The latest accusations include the charge that as a prosecutor, Bonanno exploited false testimony in a capital murder case in 1974. A federal appeals court overturned the conviction in 1986 and found Bonanno knowingly put on false testimony from a key witness.

The committee also will look into charges Bonanno expunged criminal records for relatives, friends and former clients. The St. Petersburg Times first reported the allegations in stories in 1992.

Also, Crow will investigate whether Bonanno used taxpayer resources to bring a court clerk, with whom he was having an affair, to a judicial conference.

The House is also considering impeaching Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Charles Cope, who faces a criminal trial in California on five misdemeanor charges after two women accused Cope of stealing their hotel room key and trying to enter their room as they slept.

On Tuesday, Bonanno's attorney appeared before the House committee hoping to stop the impeachment process. He presented a 49-page defense of Bonanno's behavior, called a grand jury that investigated Bonanno a "star chamber" and attacked its work as a "miscarriage of justice."

"No jurist in the history of the country has gone through similar scrutiny," said attorney Ralph Fernandez, who pledged to handle Bonanno's entire defense for free.

Even as Crow widened the inquiry into Bonanno, several legislators wondered whether the House should slow down and allow the Florida Supreme Court to discipline the judge first.

The Supreme Court is considering a recommendation that it publicly reprimand Bonanno for a "serious lapse in judgment" for entering another judge's office. The reprimand would allow Bonanno to keep his job.

"My instincts tell me our Supreme Court justices can do a lot better job of analyzing these facts than I can," said state Rep. Allan Bense, R-Panama City.

By the time the Legislature acts, the voters probably will have removed Bonanno from office, several legislators said. Bonanno's term expires in November, although the judge plans to run for re-election. So far, one lawyer has filed to run for Bonanno's seat.

"If he wins his re-election, I want to meet his campaign manager," Bense joked.

Bonanno's most recent problems began in July 2000 when a bailiff found Bonanno inside the empty and darkened office of Circuit Judge Gregory Holder, who was out of town on military duty. Bonanno and Holder are not friends, and Holder accused Bonanno of acting nefariously.

A state grand jury and the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which regulates the conduct of Florida judges, both investigated the incident, as well as Bonanno's affair with a court clerk.

The grand jury urged the Supreme Court to remove Bonanno from the bench. The panel said Bonanno had demeaned his office and lost his credibility by offering "incredible and conflicting" stories about his entry into the office.

The grand jury's report, however, was not binding. When the JQC sent the Supreme Court a report on Bonanno, it recommended only a reprimand. The Supreme Court could accept the recommendation or reject it.

State Attorney Jerry Hill of Polk County, who oversaw the grand jury investigation, on Tuesday called the JQC's work "just short of worthless."

"The JQC missed it," Hill said. "I doubt this group will."

Hill said he believed that Bonanno had lied under oath before the grand jury, but he didn't have enough evidence to bring a perjury charge.

"This is not a person you want to pay $130,000, put in office for six years, give a retirement and apply the term "honorable' to," Hill said.

- David Karp is at (813) 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com.

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