Monday, June 18, 2018
News Roundup

Accused of impropriety, Hillsborough's chief judge backs away from a case

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta is accused of playing a behind-the-scenes role in improperly revoking a defendant's bond, a claim that could potentially require him to testify about his actions.

The allegations involve the case of Matthew Buendia, 27, an ex-Marine accused of shooting a Hills­borough sheriff's deputy in 2011. On Friday, defense attorneys for Buendia filed a motion contending that in the days after their client's arrest, Ficarrotta, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe, the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office and Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee worked together to revoke Buendia's bond and increase the charges against him, overruling a previous judge's order and ensuring Buendia would remain in jail until trial.

The veteran judges and law enforcement officials did this in flagrant violation of the Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure, according to the motion, which asked that the case be moved out of Hillsborough County.

At a hearing Friday, it took just four seconds for the judge assigned to the case, Circuit Judge Lisa Campbell, to remove herself. She did not comment on her decision, and she didn't wait to hear prosecutors' arguments before issuing her order.

After the hearing, Hillsborough prosecutor Anthony Falcone gave a flat denial of the defense's allegations. "I reject the factual assertions in the motion," he said, adding that there was no reason to believe any of the judges or law enforcement officials involved had treated Buendia unfairly.

Regardless of whether the defense's claims are justified, they generated enough concern that on Friday afternoon, Ficarrotta sent a letter to the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court asking him to reassign the case to a different circuit. In the letter, Ficarrotta acknowledged the possibility that Buendia's defense attorneys, Mark O'Brien and Victoria Hatfield, may call him as a witness. If this happens, it will be the first time in his many years as a judge, he said.

In a phone conversation with a Times reporter, he declined to discuss the defense's claims. "As I may be a witness, it's inappropriate for me to comment about the case or the motion," he said. His request that the case be moved was done "to avoid even the appearance of impropriety."

"All we want is an opportunity to have a fair shot in this case," O'Brien said Friday. "Now I am of the belief that we will."

The suggestion of impropriety has hung over the Buendia case since Oct. 2, 2011, the Sunday he first appeared in court following his arrest.

A former Marine who was deployed three times to the Middle East, Buendia had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder nearly two years before Sept. 30, 2011, the night he got into a violent argument with his then-girlfriend, who called 911. When Deputy Lyonelle De Veaux responded to the Carrollwood apartment complex, Buendia walked up to her and shot at her nine or 10 times, putting three bullets into her left leg and shoulder.

De Veaux recovered, but when Buendia appeared in court the next Sunday and was given a $65,000 bond, the news infuriated the sheriff. Gee asked the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office to file an appeal and his spokesman, Larry McKinnon, told reporters that Buendia was "an extreme danger to the community." Although it's common to modify defendants' bail, what happened next was unorthodox. Hours after another judge set bond, Tharpe, who was not on duty that weekend or assigned to the case, called the jail and revoked the bond. There was no hearing, as would typically happen.

According to the motion Buendia's attorneys filed Friday, after Tharpe inserted himself into the case, Ficarrotta called the judge who had originally set Buendia's bond, told her what Tharpe had done, and asked if it was okay with her. She said it was.

The next day, she was given an order to sign retroactively approving Tharpe's decision. She signed it. One day after that, prosecutors increased the charges against Buendia to first-degree attempted murder of a law enforcement officer, a charge that carries a 25-year minimum mandatory sentence, and made him ineligible for bail.

The motion alleges that over the next several years, Ficarrotta, the judge in Buendia's case, repeatedly ruled against attorneys for the defense, who didn't know he had been involved in denying their client bail from the beginning.

Contact Anna M. Phillips at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.

Comments
Rays journal: A 4-0 lead disappears in loss at Houston

Rays journal: A 4-0 lead disappears in loss at Houston

HOUSTON — The Rays brought up several of their top prospects so they can get as much experience as possible.And Monday that included seeing how the relentless defending champion Astros worked their way back from an early four-run deficit to sco...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella pondered upside-down pitching in 2005

Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella pondered upside-down pitching in 2005

HOUSTON — Well before the idea of using a reliever to open games, as the Rays did against the Astros Monday for the 12th time, and then bringing in a starter was even a gleam in the eyes of the current Rays staff, former manager Lou Piniella wa...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Nazi or not? Tattoo sparks Twitter storm over wounded New Port Richey veteran

Nazi or not? Tattoo sparks Twitter storm over wounded New Port Richey veteran

The federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is pushing back against a social media post implying that a combat-wounded New Port Richey veteran has a Nazi symbol tattooed on his arm.In a tweet Monday afternoon, ICE officials denied the vete...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Pinellas protesters: Stop separating families at the border

Pinellas protesters: Stop separating families at the border

Protests were held on both ends of Pinellas County on Monday in opposition to the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents as they seek asylum at the U.S. border."Children are not pawns," "No kids in cages" and "I would...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Deadly Sunday for swimmers in bay area waters

Deadly Sunday for swimmers in bay area waters

Two people drowned and another suffered life-threatening injuries in the waters of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday.Investigators said all three cases appear to be accidents, but the incidents stand as a reminder that summer, with vacation ...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Private Florida firm buys Rent-A-Center in $1 billion deal

Private Florida firm buys Rent-A-Center in $1 billion deal

An Orlando private equity firm has purchased lease-to-own business Rent-A-Center in a deal valued at more than $1 billion.Vintage Capital Management put a bid in for the company on Friday: $15 per share, $1 per share above its previous offer. Rent-A-...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Report: 40 percent of Florida property will be ‘highly exposed’ to flooding

Report: 40 percent of Florida property will be ‘highly exposed’ to flooding

One of Florida’s biggest draws is also one if its biggest liabilities — its coastline. A new report projects that Florida is at the greatest risk of any state for tidal flooding caused by rising sea levels. And Tampa Bay faces some of the greatest ri...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Pinellas deputies arrest Mississippi man 31 years after sexual battery

Pinellas deputies arrest Mississippi man 31 years after sexual battery

SEMINOLE — She was 22 when deputies said a man forced her at knifepoint into the woods off Seminole Boulevard and sexually battered her in February 1987.The case went cold, but now the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said it has arrested the man it ...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Iceland World Cup Fever … catch it!

Iceland World Cup Fever … catch it!

TAMPA — Iceland isn't what it used to be. Literally. The Nordic island country is shrinking, what with global warming. Iceland's glaciers are getting smaller. If you took all that ice and laid it end to end, well, you clearly have nothing bette...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Tampa police seek driver who struck pedestrian and drove off

Tampa police seek driver who struck pedestrian and drove off

TAMPA — Police are seeking the public’s help in locating the driver who fatally struck a pedestrian on Sunday night and then drove off.The incident took place at 9:15 p.m. near the intersection of N Nebraska Avenue and E Linebaugh Avenue.No details a...
Updated: 5 hours ago