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Courthouse scandal judge merely laments news leak

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2000


TAMPA -- The likely suspects sat before Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer:

Sheriff Cal Henderson, Hillsborough Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez, Circuit Judge Gregory Holder, and others were assembled at a hearing convened after a secret grand jury report about Hillsborough's courthouse leaked to the press.

Many in the audience had come to see what Schaeffer, who promised to investigate any leaks, would do. After all, when she had sealed the report of the inquiry into circuit judges Robert Bonanno and Gasper Ficarrotta, Schaeffer warned everyone that she didn't want to read about it in the newspaper.

The next morning it was on the Tampa Tribune's front page.

Would she grill the officials to find out who leaked the report? Would she hold the Tribune in contempt for publishing the story?

In the end, there was no drama.

"I am annoyed to no end," Schaeffer said, but she did little to root out the anonymous source who had told the Tribune what was in the secret report.

She wondered if an inquiry would do any good or identify the anonymous source. She denied a motion by Bonanno's attorney to hold the Tribune in contempt for publishing an order about the report.

Schaeffer had ordered a handful of people, including the judges and the sheriff, to keep the report confidential. But Schaeffer did not specifically forbid their lawyers from disclosing the report, and she did not order newspapers not to print any leaks.

At the time, Schaeffer didn't think that would be needed. "I think people just assume that people don't leak this stuff," said Schaeffer, who normally presides over cases in Pinellas County.

Ralph Fernandez, who represents Bonanno, warned Schaeffer that the report would leak in two hours.

"I said, "That's not going to happen,' " Schaeffer recalled.

Fernandez just smiled.

The grand jury report remains sealed, but investigative records that have been released contain details about Judge Ficarrotta having sex in his chambers and soliciting campaign contributions for the sheriff. The report also details an affair that Bonanno had with a court clerk.

David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com.

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