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Facing ethics charges over dealings with a stripper, Thomas Stringer resigns as judge

TAMPA — Under fire for his financial dealings with a stripper, Judge Thomas E. Stringer Sr. resigned Tuesday from the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

Just a month ago, the judge vowed to fight ethics charges that he took gifts from 48-year-old Christy Yamanaka of New York City and helped hide her assets from creditors.

But days before he was scheduled to appear for a deposition with state Judicial Qualifications Commission prosecutors, he decided to walk away from the position he has held for the past decade.

"It was time," said Stringer's attorney, J. David Bogenschutz. "At some point, you spend your whole career being a good judge and a decent public servant, and when people begin to cast aspersions on you and your record, it just isn't worth it."

Stringer, 64, could still face serious legal challenges.

His attorney said it will be up to the JQC to decide whether to continue pursuing the ethics charges filed against Stringer in January.

And Tuesday, the stripper said the FBI also is investigating the case.

Stringer, a married father of five adult children, spent most of his legal career collecting accolades and appointments. He made history as Stetson University's first black law school graduate and as Hillsborough County's first black circuit judge.

Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him to the 2nd DCA in February 1999. He heard cases from 14 counties, including Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco. In 2007, his law school alma mater inducted him into its hall of fame.

Last spring the judge denied any wrongdoing after Yamanaka told reporters that he owed her money from an investment they made together on a Hawaiian property. But less than a year later, he was facing formal ethics charges.

The JQC took Stringer to task for entering into a series of financial transactions with Yamanaka despite knowing about the money problems she faced.

They had become friends in 1995 after meeting at what was then Malio's restaurant on Dale Mabry Highway. Stringer later referred Yamanaka to his attorney son after she filed for bankruptcy and was ordered to pay creditors about $315,000, the JQC said.

The ethics body accused Stringer of providing the stripper with access to bank accounts opened in his name in order to keep her assets and income out of creditors' reach. He listed himself as the sole title holder on a residence in Hawaii that Yamanaka purchased.

The JQC said the judge leased an apartment for Yamanaka and allowed her to pay rent in cash. When Yamanaka gave him a Mercedes and paid for his stay at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Stringer did not report the gifts on his financial disclosure filings, according to the charges.

Stringer's deadline for responding to the charges was Tuesday.

The judge entered the state's deferred retirement program three years ago and is fully vested for his retirement benefits, his attorney said. Bogenschutz said those benefits would not be affected.

As for a continued prosecution by the JQC, "it would seem to me, at least at this stage, it may not be fiscally responsible to go through with it," he said.

Yamanaka said she has been in close contact with an FBI agent who is investigating her claims against Stringer. The stripper said Tuesday that she has provided "thousands of documents" to support her accusations.

She criticized the judge for taking so long to resign. The public, she said, should be served by honest people.

"I don't think that he's in the position to be judging the people, who's right, who's wrong," she said.

Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Facing ethics charges over dealings with a stripper, Thomas Stringer resigns as judge 02/10/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 13, 2009 8:48am]
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