October 31, 2014

Ethics

Whodunnit? Who Knows?

A strange JQC investigation leaves most questions unanswered.

Pat Dunnigan | 9/1/2005
For sheer weirdness, it will be very hard to top a Judicial Qualifications Commission investigation that concluded this summer. The case is linked to dark allegations that have swirled about the Hillsborough County courthouse for years: Was a clique of Tampa judges involved in case-fixing, prostitution, money laundering, gambling? Sexual misconduct? Campaign violations?JUDICIAL BLOW: Circuit Judge Gregory Holder maintains that those threatened by his cooperation with federal investigators orchestrated a smear campaign against him.

In 2001, investigators looking into those questions approached veteran Circuit Judge Gregory Holder. He agreed to help. Holder's information was second-hand, but his sources were also willing to talk. For awhile, between 2001 and 2002, Holder, who's also a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, was important enough that federal investigators feared his phone may have been tapped. They gave him a cell phone specifically for his contacts with the FBI.

Holder won't say what information he provided to investigators, but he identified a former sheriff's office major along with former Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez and Robert H. Bonanno, another former circuit court judge, as subjects.

Holder says the federal investigators led him to believe that indictments were imminent. But no charges came of the information that Holder supplied. Bonanno was caught in Holder's office while Holder was away. Facing reprimand and possibly impeachment, he resigned. Alvarez also resigned.

Then, in 2002, Holder found himself caught up in an investigation. Someone slipped an anonymous note and two research papers into the Army Reserve office of assistant U.S. attorney and Army Reserve lawyer Jeffrey Del Fuoco. One was purportedly a paper Holder had submitted in 1998 as part of a military class required of officers seeking advancement in rank. The other was by a student who had taken the same course two years earlier. Ten pages of the paper identified as Holder's appeared to have been lifted completely from the earlier paper.

By 2003, Holder was facing formal charges from the state's Judicial Qualifications Commission. The 2.5-year investigation and legal battle that followed left no one looking particularly good.

Holder says he is convinced that the JQC case against him was payback -- a smear campaign launched by those threatened by his cooperation with the federal investigation into courthouse corruption. Someone forged the research paper that was slipped under Del Fuoco's door, he says. He can't prove it because all copies of his original paper have disappeared, even from among a group of fellow reservists who regularly passed their papers around.

Holder's allegations may appear far-fetched, but the JQC didn't find them as far-fetched as the prosecution's claims, which bogged down in the chain-of-evidence narrative provided by Del Fuoco, who had baggage of his own.

Del Fuoco, standing in as chief witness for the prosecution in the absence of the anonymous person who slipped the papers under his door, could not explain what had happened to the envelope or a typewritten note urging him to look into the matter. His explanations as to how a second copy of the research paper later ended up in his Pasco County storage unit were also perplexing. The case briefly veered off into an account of Del Fuoco's lawsuit accusing members of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office of plotting against him in retaliation for a corruption investigation there.

The JQC hearing panel found the evidence "extremely conflicting" and "troublesome," the "implications disturbing" and the credibility of "certain witnesses" doubtful. The charges against Holder did not rise to the standard of "clear and convincing," the JQC concluded. And in June, following a six-day formal hearing, the panel dismissed the charges against Holder.

For the JQC, it was the first time in 19 years that a case that went to a full hearing ended in a loss. The case will likely hold the record for expense as well, particularly if lawyers for the accused judge are successful in their efforts to make the JQC pay the judge's lawyer bills and costs.

Brooke Kennerly, the JQC's longtime executive director, acknowledges that the case left a lot of people dissatisfied. "A lot of people are disappointed that the commission didn't solve the whodunnit," she says. "That's not the job. That's Perry Mason's job."

For Holder, 51, the dismissal feels like vindication. The case left "an infinite number of unanswered questions," he says. But he is looking forward to going back to work without a cloud over his head. "I am glad to have this behind me," he says.

The JQC, on the other hand, may find it more difficult. State Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, a lawyer and longtime friend of Holder's, says the case illustrates a need for new procedures at the JQC. Ambler wants to establish a legislative committee to gather testimony around the state and propose reforms to the process by which the JQC brings charges against judges.

Among other things, Ambler says there needs to be a mechanism, like a motion for dismissal, for disposing of weak cases early in the process. Cases that rely on anonymous accusers should require a higher standard of proof, he says. And JQC members who have been involved in previous complaints against the same judge should not participate in subsequent proceedings. He also wants to explore imposing a statute of limitations and the hiring of a full-time prosecutor for the JQC, which now relies on outside lawyers.

As for the original investigation, which Holder said was to have produced indictments three years ago? Holder, who will not reveal the information that he provided, says he has not been contacted about the case in years. The U.S. Attorney's Office says only that it continues. Many observers, however, believe it is languishing. "I think it's dead as a doornail," says Holder's attorney, David B. Weinstein.

Tags: Politics & Law, Tampa Bay, Government/Politics & Law

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