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Judge was investigated repeatedly

By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 28, 2001

TAMPA -- Judge Robert Bonanno stunned friends when he ended his judicial career Thursday to stop an ethics inquiry that might have lasted for months.

TAMPA -- Judge Robert Bonanno stunned friends when he ended his judicial career Thursday to stop an ethics inquiry that might have lasted for months.

He had, after all, endured investigations for years.

Since becoming a lawyer in 1970, Bonanno has been investigated on suspicion of prosecutorial misconduct, paying for escorts, sealing cases for friends, fixing cases, conducting an affair with his clerk and breaking into another judge's office.

Until now, Bonanno had outlasted it all. Despite numerous investigations by state and federal authorities, he has never been charged with a crime.

Bonanno, 57, was born in Tampa and earned his law degree from the University of Florida. Admitted to the Florida Bar in 1970, he was a state prosecutor in Tampa.

There, he prosecuted Joseph Green Brown in 1974 in the rape and murder of Earlene Treva Barksdale, the wife of a prominent Tampa lawyer. During the trial, Bonanno showed the jury a .38-caliber handgun that he called the murder weapon, even though he knew it was not.

Years later, a federal appeals court overturned the conviction and issued a damning opinion about Bonanno's conduct. Brown spent 12 years on death row and came within 15 hours of electrocution before being freed.

In 1982, Gov. Bob Graham appointed Bonanno to the bench. As a county judge, Bonanno was investigated by sheriff's detectives on suspicion of fixing cases and accepting bribes. He was never charged.

In 1989, Gov. Bob Martinez elevated Bonanno to the circuit bench. Three years later, the St. Petersburg Times published a series, "Hiding the Past," about how Bonanno and other judges improperly sealed from public view cases for relatives and former clients. At least publicly, Bonanno was never disciplined.

In 1993, Bonanno appeared as a witness during a federal trial about corruption charges at the courthouse. Prosecutors grilled him about paying escorts. Bonanno denied the charges and took a lie detector test. Federal prosecutors never revealed the evidence against Bonanno.

Last year, a bailiff discovered Bonanno after hours inside the empty and darkened office of Circuit Judge Gregory Holder. Bonanno said he had gone to visit Holder to talk about courthouse politics and a case. But Holder did not believe that, calling Bonanno's actions nefarious.

Holder called for the investigation that led Thursday to Bonanno's resignation.

By leaving, Bonanno's friends and colleagues said, the judge did the right thing.

"It is time for Judge Bonanno to move on and re-establish himself as a prominent lawyer in this town," said his lawyer, Ralph Fernandez.

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