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    Report: Web of scandal at Hillsborough courthouse

    Records describe accusations of sexual affairs and secret safe deposit boxes.

    By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD and JEFF TESTERMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 12, 2000


    TAMPA -- A months-long inquiry into the Hillsborough County courthouse has found accusations ranging from sexual affairs in a judge's chambers to death threats and secret safe deposit boxes.

    A grand jury report of the matter remains sealed, but investigative records released Monday suggest a broad web of scandal.

    The records show that Circuit Judge Gregory Holder told investigators of conversations he had with bailiff Tara Pisano, who made the following claims:

    Pisano and Circuit Judge Gasper Ficarrotta had sex in Ficarrotta's chambers while Holder conducted jury trials in the next room. Ficarrotta offered his resignation after the affair became public.

    Pisano saw large amounts of money in Ficarrotta's office, including a cash-filled security box.

    Pisano saw Ficarrotta solicit and receive money from lawyers for Sheriff Cal Henderson's 2000 election campaign. Judges are ethically forbidden from raising money for political candidates.

    Holder also alerted investigators to an incident in which Pisano accused her husband, sheriff's Cpl. Carmine Pisano, of threatening to kill Ficarrotta in response to the affair.

    The Sheriff's Office made no report of that incident.

    Sheriff's Maj. Robert DeLuna told the Times Monday that Tara Pisano called him one night last year to report that she had been in an argument with her husband, and that he made threats against the judge and drove off.

    DeLuna said he and other deputies waited at Judge Ficarrotta's house to ensure his safety, but Cpl. Pisano didn't show up that night. The next day, he denied making a death threat.

    "It's not against the law to threaten anybody except the president of the United States, unless there's an overt act to substantiate it," said Sheriff Cal Henderson. "We didn't do an investigation because one was not needed."

    Carmine Pisano declined comment Monday.

    The release of reports Monday from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Hillsborough sheriff's authorities comes three days after a grand jury issued its report on the courthouse matters.

    For 15 days, only people named in the report, called a presentment, can see it. They can decide to contest or seek suppression of parts of the report.

    The grand jury began looking into courthouse goings-on after Holder's complaint that his bailiff found Robert Bonanno in Holder's darkened chambers last July.

    The grand jury handed down no indictments.

    Fundraising

    One area of the grand jury's inquiry was whether Judge Ficarrotta had assisted in campaign fundraising for Henderson.

    According to the FDLE documents, lawyers Bennie Lazzara and Joseph Ficarrotta -- a distant cousin of Gasper Ficarrotta -- told investigators that in 1999, Ficarrotta contacted them separately regarding a fundraiser for the sheriff.

    Among those involved was Michael Sheehan, the sheriff's corporal who oversees courthouse bailiffs and who has been named in the sealed grand jury presentment.

    FDLE agents discovered that Judge Ficarrotta and Sheehan share a safe deposit box at a Bank of America branch on Davis Islands. The report does indicate what the safe deposit box was used for.

    Henderson said his internal affairs division would investigate allegations against Sheehan of improper political activity, and against Pisano of having sex on duty.

    Judges

    The FDLE documents also indicate for the first time the five-year extramarital affair between Judge Bonanno and his former court clerk, Joan Helms.

    In an interview with Special Prosecutor Jerry Hill and an FDLE agent, Helms, 48, said her sexual relationship with Bonanno began in 1995 and ended earlier this year. Helms was the court clerk assigned to Bonanno in the civil trial division during 1998.

    Helms, who has since left her $27,955-a-year clerk's job and now works in the family intake department at the Hillsborough Courthouse, testified before the grand jury for 37 minutes on Nov. 15. The grand jury then heard from Bonanno, accompanied by attorney Ralph Fernandez, for about an hour and 20 minutes.

    Helms told investigators she spent her breaks and lunch hours with the judge in his chambers on a regular basis, often discussing what she said were "discrimination problems" involving her job. While working as Bonanno's court clerk, Helms said the two worked closely.

    "That was nice," Helms told investigators. "It gave us time to talk and be together."

    Sexual encounters with Bonanno occurred during the evenings or on weekends at Helms' home in north Tampa, she said, never at the courthouse.

    Reached at her home Monday evening, Helms declined to comment on the FDLE report.

    One of the more provocative details in the report concerned Ficarrotta.

    Judge Holder quotes bailiff Pisano as saying Ficarrotta went shopping with her at Victoria's Secret and that he wore her T-back underwear in his private office.

    Ficarrotta resigned his position several days after testifying before the grand jury. The resignation likely brought to an end any investigation by the state's Judicial Qualifications Commission.

    Ficarrotta did not return a call seeking comment.

    Confidentiality

    Also on Monday, an attorney for Bonanno said 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 Courthourse.

    "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.

    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.

    - Times staff writer Sarah Schweitzer contributed to this report.

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