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    Judge's house deal probed

    The House subpoenas records involving Robert Bonanno's financing of a $450,000 model home.

    By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published December 13, 2001


    TAMPA -- A House committee considering the impeachment of Hillsborough Judge Robert Bonanno wants to know how the judge financed a new $450,000 house in Lake Magdalene.

    House investigators issued subpoenas Wednesday for all documents related to Bonanno's purchase of a home on Lake Emerald Boulevard last year from a developer who used the house as a model home.

    The committee also subpoenaed the director of Westfield Homes of Florida to testify about the company's dealings with Bonanno.

    Records show that Bonanno took out a $382,500 mortgage to buy the home from Westfield USA Venture Inc. in January 2000. The house was worth $450,000, according to a financial disclosure form Bonanno signed.

    After buying the model home, Bonanno leased it to Westfield Homes, which paid the judge $50,570 for the lease in 2000, according to financial disclosure forms.

    Bonanno, who owns an interest in three homes in Hillsborough, does not live at the model home in Lake Magdalene.

    The chairman of the House Judicial Oversight Committee said Wednesday that investigators want to examine "any improprieties" that might be linked to the purchase of the home. He did not elaborate.

    The House committee also subpoenaed Circuit Judge Donald Evans, Bonanno, and Bonanno's judicial assistant and court clerk, Joan Helms, with whom Bonanno had an affair, to answer questions under oath later this month.

    Bonanno's attorney called the subpoenas a clear sign that the House had limited its investigation of the judge.

    "There is no doubt they have reduced their range of inquiry," attorney Ralph Fernandez said.

    He said investigators would find nothing improper with Bonanno's purchase of the home.

    Even so, Fernandez acknowledged Wednesday that Bonanno has been considering resigning for at least a month.

    "Every day, he considers a number of options," Fernandez said. "Would it shock me if Bonanno decided to resign? No. These things keep snowballing. It is a tiring process."

    The House began considering Bonanno's impeachment this year after a state agency that polices judges recommended that Bonanno get a public reprimand for his conduct and a state grand jury called for Bonanno's resignation.

    The investigation began when Bonanno was found after hours inside the darkened offices of Judge Gregory Holder, who was out of town on military duty. Holder and Bonanno are not friends, and Holder accused Bonanno are acting nefariously. Bonanno has claimed he went to the office to talk to Holder about courthouse business.

    State Rep. Larry Crow, R-Dunedin, said the House wanted to investigate other accusations against Bonanno, including allegations that he sealed cases for friends and relatives.

    Judge Evans is expected to testify about Bonanno's efforts to seal cases. Evans, who is retiring next year, could not be reached for comment.

    Staff attorneys will depose witnesses in an open courtroom in Tampa starting Dec. 27.

    The depositions will "give the public an opportunity to judge these issues," Crow said.

    The subpoenas do not mean that the House has limited its inquiry, he added.

    While investigators will look at allegations about Bonanno going back a decade, the House will only impeach Bonanno for actions he committed in his current six-year term, which began in 1996.

    "That is not to say that at the end of the day, the committee may not consider the past stuff," Crow said.

    - Times Staff Writer David Karp is at 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com.

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