Hillsborough judge Bonanno quits as inquiry about to start
By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Before the investigations began two years ago, three judges formed a powerful triumvirate at the Hillsborough County Courthouse.
Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez, Judge Gasper Ficarrotta and Judge Robert Bonanno were friends and the power center of courthouse politics. If you wanted an appointment to the bench or sought a courthouse job, you saw them.
On Thursday, the last of the three resigned.
Like his two colleagues who resigned amid ethics investigations, Bonanno stepped down to avoid an embarrassing public accounting that would have gone on for months. He faced questions about a courthouse affair, the sealing of cases, the purchase of a $450,000 model home.
It all ended moments before he was scheduled to appear before a Florida House committee considering his impeachment. Only Bonanno's attorney, Ralph Fernandez, showed up.
Fernandez, who earlier had said the hearing would be "a showdown at the OK Corral," announced that Bonanno was giving up the seat he had held for 12 years.
"I guess the gunfighters decided to go into the saloon and resolve it in a more amicable fashion," Fernandez said.
Bonanno already had left town on vacation. Fernandez said that Bonanno had decided to resign Wednesday around 7 p.m. after talking it over for hours with his wife and his attorney.
Bonanno's resignation capped a tumultuous period for Tampa's judges. In all, six judges have faced ethics investigations in the past 18 months. Four have resigned.
"Clearly, it is a new day dawning for our system of justice in Hillsborough County," said Circuit Judge Gregory Holder, who triggered the investigation of Bonanno.
Bonanno's troubles began in July 2000 when a bailiff found him after hours in Holder's darkened office. Holder was out of town on military duty.
Bonanno said he went into Holder's office to talk about courthouse politics. But many found that unbelievable: Holder and Bonanno are not friends.
A grand jury called for Bonanno's resignation, saying he had ruined his credibility by telling "incredible and conflicting" stories about why he was in Holder's office.
After the Judicial Qualifications Commission investigated, Bonanno agreed to apologize for his behavior and accept a public reprimand from the Florida Supreme Court. The deal would have let Bonanno keep his job.
Then the Florida House of Representatives stepped in. The House Judicial Oversight Committee began separate impeachment proceedings against Bonanno and Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Charles Cope, who was arrested in California after attempting to enter a hotel room occupied by two women. Cope's impeachment hearing continues.
The House committee subpoenaed Bonanno's financial records and made it clear that its inquiries would extend far beyond the Holder incident.
One witness at Thursday's hearing would have been Circuit Judge Donald Evans.
"I was prepared to testify by virtue of subpoena that approximately 10 years ago (Bonanno) spread a vindictive lie about me," Evans said. "However, since he has done the right thing, I don't have any further interest in prolonging his sad chapter in the history of the judiciary."
Evans declined to elaborate.
Bonanno's attorney said the judge wasn't concerned about Evans' testimony. Instead, Fernandez said, Bonanno worried about the impact the hearings would have on his wife, friends and other judges. "There was little to gain and much to lose," Fernandez said.
Another factor must have been the expected mayoral campaign of Alvarez. Months of hearings on Bonanno would have hurt his close friend's bid to be Tampa's next mayor.
"Enough has been said and written. Close the book," Alvarez told WTVT-Ch. 13.
Bonanno will resign effective Jan. 21. While he is giving up a job that paid him an annual salary of $130,000, Bonanno can serve as a "private judge" under state law and make thousands in the lucrative practice of private mediation.
Indeed, Bonanno realized how much he could make after seeing how well Alvarez and Ficarrotta had done in private practice, Fernandez said. Ficarrotta resigned rather than face charges that he had an affair with a bailiff and that he raised campaign money for the sheriff in violation of judicial ethics. Alvarez resigned after the JQC opened an inquiry into his handling of other judges' misconduct.
Bonanno, 57, also will get his state pension, which will be worth $79,380 a year if he waits until he is 62 to start drawing it.
The House will likely end the impeachment hearing into Bonanno. State Rep. Larry Crow, R-Dunedin, who led the House committee, immediately called off Thursday's hearing.
"There is no point in going forward," Crow said.
But citizens at the hearing told Crow that the House should continue investigating allegations about judges in Tampa.
"I don't think it's over," said Hillsborough GOP chairwoman Margie Kincaid, who attended.
The scandals, which damaged the courthouse's public image, could affect next year's elections, too.
"Unfortunately, some of those judges may face opposition when they really shouldn't," said lawyer Rick Escobar. "Some (voters) are going to view this as an opportunity to say, "Let's clean house.' "
Bonanno could face an investigations from the Florida Bar, which can open an inquiry once he leaves the bench.
Even as he resigned, Bonanno attempted to limit his vulnerability to further action.
In private on Thursday, Fernandez gave Crow a letter that outlined the terms of Bonanno's resignation. In exchange for resigning, the letter said, the House would not subpoena Bonanno in the future to testify. It also guaranteed that Bonanno's conduct would not jeopardize his pension.
Neither side mentioned the letter to reporters. Reached Thursday evening, Crow said he intended to make the letter public. "I apologize," he said.
The letter "doesn't mean anything," Crow said. "As far as the letter is considered, it is not really accurate."
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