Tampa Florida Courts have a history of judicial corruption 

Ex-Judge Recounts Invitation To Clique

By John W. Allman and Michael Fecter
The Tampa Tribune

TAMPA - The conversation, he says, came less than a year after he became a Hillsborough County judge. He sat and listened, he says, as a judge told him about a small band of judges who gave one another a heads-up whenever friends were to come to court. Then the other judge asked whether he would join the group.

Donald Evans remembers that he was stunned.

He still appears to be, more than 20 years later, recounting the moment, with clarity and conviction, when he says he realized he was privy to ``some conspiracy of sorts amongst a handful of judges.''

Evans said it was his first substantial interaction with F. Dennis Alvarez , the man who would eventually control the courthouse for 12 years as chief judge. At the time, Evans and Alvarez were county judges. Evans was essentially a rookie, having taken the bench in 1982.

Alvarez said `` `I have this same understanding with six, seven, eight judges,' '' Evans said in an interview with The Tampa Tribune. ``I said, `Dennis, don't put me on your list.' ''

Evans didn't report the conversation at the time, he said.

But it stayed with him, much like a subsequent series of events with another colleague, Circuit Judge Robert Bonanno, one of Alvarez's closest friends.

The events Evans describes provide the first detailed look at the courthouse issues tied to a broad federal and state corruption investigation in Tampa.

The probe, being conducted by the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement, has been moving along two tracks. One involves allegations of past case-fixing at the courthouse by former judges and others. The other involves allegations of money laundering, loan-sharking, illegal gambling and prostitution, and has touched on individuals in law enforcement and private business.

Evans, 65, has been interviewed twice by FBI agents, he said, most recently in late 2001.

Although several past judges thought to be under scrutiny, including Alvarez and Bonanno, have resigned while being investigated for noncriminal ethical issues, no one has been criminally charged in the corruption investigation.

The Players Involved

Evans' relationship with Alvarez and Bonanno would play out over the next two decades, culminating in a rumor being spread about Evans' sexuality and Evans later being subpoenaed to testify before a state legislative committee that was considering whether to recommend Bonanno's impeachment.

Alvarez, now a private lawyer, initially agreed to an interview for this story, then canceled, then said he would not comment publicly even after hearing Evans' claims in detail.

Bonanno, after an expletive- filled rant against Evans, also initially agreed to consider an interview. He did not return three subsequent phone calls.

The Tribune spoke with Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr., Circuit Judges J. Rogers Padgett and Debra Behnke, the late Circuit Judge Robert J. Simms, who died of an apparent heart attack April 9, six other current or former circuit judges who refused to allow their names to be used, plus former Chief Judge J. Clifford Cheatwood.

All but one had heard about some or all of Evans' experiences either directly from him or from others at the courthouse.

Menendez declined to talk about Evans without saying why.

Many of the other judges interviewed by the Tribune said they respect Evans and have no reason to doubt him, although some questioned why he would go public with his story now.

Evans is perhaps best remembered for his 10 years at the helm of Hillsborough County's drug court, an alternative to jail or prison for people who might benefit from treatment for substance addiction. He retired from the bench in January 2003 and now runs a private mediation office.

``I'm confident there's not any sort of mass conspiracy'' involving all of Hillsborough County's judges, Evans said, ``and the vast majority of judges I hold in high esteem.''

But Evans does not feel that way about Alvarez and Bonanno, who he believes led a small clique of judges who ``held great sway over some of their colleagues.''

The Conversation

Evans launched a quiet campaign while on the bench to inform and educate new judges about the ways of the courthouse when they were elected or appointed. He took them to lunch or spoke to them in passing.

``I would tell them about that meeting with Dennis,'' Evans said. ``When he did it to me, I had no idea it was coming. At least they could have a heads-up.''

It was his way of trying to ``undermine their efforts to compromise new judges,'' he said.

Alvarez's alleged overture began with a telephone call, Evans said. Evans wasn't available and called Alvarez later. This time Alvarez wasn't available. Meanwhile, Evans kept the cases on his docket moving through court.

Later, Alvarez came to his office, Evans said.

``He said, `A friend of mine came in front of you today.' '' Evans recalled, after which Alvarez mentioned the person by name. ``I said, `Yeah, I hammered him pretty heavy.' He said, `Yeah, you sure did. That was the reason I was calling you, because he was a friend of mine.' ''

In that case, Evans said, it was just as well he and Alvarez hadn't spoken beforehand. If they had, Evans said, he would have recused himself and passed the case to another judge.

Alvarez assured him that he wouldn't have asked him to do anything wrong, Evans said. Then, he said, Alvarez made his pitch.

``He said, `Look, you're going to have people that are friends of yours come in front of me,' '' Evans said. `` `I'm going to have friends come in front of you. I would like to be comfortable calling you. If a friend of yours comes in front of me, I would like you to be comfortable calling me.' ''

That's when Alvarez said ``six, seven, eight'' other judges did this for one another, Evans said.

``I reached a clear conclusion,'' Evans said. ``I concluded that the reason there was a sharing of this friendship relationship was because there was an expectation it would be a factor in how the case would be handled.''

What sort of factor? ``That there would be some level of preferential treatment,'' Evans said.

Alvarez left when Evans told him he wasn't interested, Evans said.

``He smiled, said he understood and that was it,'' Evans said.


The Judges' Feud

Evans took the opportunity to tell new judges about other incidents, as well.

He said he talked about what he perceived as a questionable arrangement in the county's traffic court whereby defendants with attorneys could enter no contest pleas, have judgment withheld and be penalized court costs only. That allowed them to keep their records clean.

He talked about how his decision not to follow suit angered the attorneys, and about how Bonanno, also then a county judge, had once disposed in similar fashion of a number of cases assigned to Evans - without Evans' knowledge or approval.

Evans protested to Bonanno afterward, he said. Nothing was resolved. To the contrary, they began a long-running feud.

For example: Bonanno subsequently applied for a seat on the circuit court bench. Evans said the chairwoman of the Judicial Nominating Commission, a panel that recommends judicial candidates to the governor when vacancies occur, called him to ask whether a story she had heard about Bonanno disposing of Evans' cases was true. It was, Evans said, and the commission passed over Bonanno for the nomination.

Then things got really ugly.

Bonanno, aided by Alvarez, launched a smear campaign that angers Evans to this day, he said.

Evans was going through a divorce. A rumor began circulating about a document in Evans' divorce file in which he supposedly acknowledged being gay and having had a torrid affair. As if seeking added shock value, his partner was alleged to have been black.

A fellow judge, Susan Bucklew, who now sits on the federal bench, told him that she heard the rumor from Alvarez and Bonanno, Evans said. Bucklew did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Although it wasn't true, the rumor spread quickly.

``I looked into bringing a slander action against them,'' Evans said.

Time has eased some of his concerns over discussing the incident publicly. But Evans still simmers at the mention of it.

``I considered it then, and still consider it, to be about as low class an act as a person can do,'' he said, visibly uncomfortable. ``It bothered me that circuit judges, whom many people would not think they would tell lies like this, were doing so. Especially when one was the chief judge.''

Other judges were distressed, too.

Simms was especially flabbergasted. He was the judge in Evans' divorce case.

``Whoever said it to me didn't go further because I was emphatic,'' he said. ``I had read the file.''

In addition to the Evans rumor, Behnke said that Alvarez, while chief judge, spread similar rumors about other members of the judiciary who weren't considered members of his inner circle. She declined to discuss details.

The Chance To Testify

Evans was finally asked to tell his side of the story publicly in late 2001.

Bonanno, who had since become a circuit judge, had become embroiled in a series of scandals beginning in mid- 2000. He was caught after- hours inside the locked offices of another judge, Gregory P. Holder, and was later accused of having had an affair with a court clerk.

A special grand jury launched an investigation. It found no basis for criminal charges, but in a scathing report said Bonanno should resign or be removed. The Judicial Qualifications Commission, the agency responsible for policing Florida's judges, recommended that Bonanno be reprimanded publicly for poor judgment.

Throughout, Bonanno refused to step aside. So a committee of the state House of Representatives began impeachment proceedings against him.

A legislative aide called Evans and asked him to testify. Evans said he would, if subpoenaed.

The morning Evans was to appear in late December 2001, Bonanno decided to resign. He left the bench less than a month later, in January 2002.

No one on the committee knew exactly what he had planned to say, Evans said. He skirted questions from reporters that day.

But first and foremost, Evans said, he planned to address the rumor, as well as how Bonanno once disposed of cases that had been assigned to Evans, plus anything else he was asked.

``Had I been asked the question, I would have told the truth,'' he said.

Reporter John W. Allman can be reached at (813) 259-7915. Reporter Michael Fechter can be reached at (813) 259-7621.