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    Lawyer targets paper, source

    Judge Robert Bonnano's lawyer wants to know how the Tribune got access to sealed grand jury findings.

    By SARAH SCHWEITZER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 12, 2000


    TAMPA -- Alleging conspiracy and criminal misconduct, an attorney for Hillsborough Circuit Judge Robert Bonanno said Monday he planned to ask a judge to root out the unnamed source of a Tampa Tribune article that revealed a grand jury's findings about his client.

    The grand jury's report was sealed Friday by Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer, who presided over the group's review of misconduct allegations at the Hillsborough County Courthouse. State law requires such reports, formally called presentments, to remain confidential for at least 15 days while any subjects named by the grand jury decide whether to contest or suppress the findings.

    "This information was confidential and not to be disclosed under any circumstances," said Ralph Fernandez, Bonanno's attorney.

    The Tribune reported Saturday that the grand jury concluded Bonanno had conducted an extramarital affair in his chambers at the Hillsborough County Courthouse and that such conduct was unbecoming of a judge. According to the Tribune, the grand jury recommended that Bonanno resign and that the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which polices Florida's judges, investigate him.

    The Tribune also reported that Bonanno had been in Circuit Judge Gregory Holder's chambers searching for documents on a July afternoon. It was a bailiff's discovery of Bonanno in Holder's chambers while Holder was out of town and Holder's demand for an investigation that led to the convening of the grand jury.

    Its investigation expanded to Hillsborough Circuit Judge Gasper Ficarrotta's affair with bailiff Tara Pisano. Ficarrotta resigned in the middle of the investigation and will step down Dec. 31.

    Fernandez said he will ask a judge to investigate who leaked the information and the circumstances surrounding the leak. He said he also would seek appropriate sanctions against the source of the information and the newspaper.

    "They are all equally culpable, and such conduct clearly falls outside any journalistic privilege," Fernandez said. Tribune attorney Gregg Thomas said he would not comment on Fernandez's allegations until a formal court filing had been made. Fernandez said a motion would be filed today.

    Larry Fletcher, a senior editor for news at the Tribune, said the decision to publish the sealed information was a deliberate and carefully considered one.

    "We thought about the ramifications, but we felt we were on solid legal ground," he said. "The public has a right to know what circuit court judges are doing in the courthouse."

    George Rahdert, an attorney who handles First Amendment issues for the St. Petersburg Times, said Fernandez's demands could have potentially damaging implications if the Tribune reporter is subpoenaed and compelled to reveal her sources.

    "We think the First Amendment requires the utmost protection of reporters' sources and that it is a terrible idea to put a reporter on the stand and conduct a witch hunt," he said.

    Rahdert said the more appropriate reviewing authority is a prosecutor's office. But Jerry Hill, the Polk County state attorney appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to oversee the investigation into the Bonanno-Holder incident, said he would not independently seek out the source of the Tribune article.

    "If anything were to occur as to the source of this article, it would be up to the judge to initiate it," Hill said.

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