TAMPA — Three Hillsborough judges aren't violating ethical rules by waiving some community service hours for probationers who attend a how-to course offered by a for-profit organization, the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee has decided.
Committee members appear unconcerned that the private Probation & Violation Center is run by former judge Robert Bonanno, who left the bench in 2001 to avoid an ethics inquiry of his own.
The opinion issued this week makes no mention of Bonanno's involvement.
Nor does it address the legality of the arrangement. According to the advisory opinion, the question of whether judges can legally waive hours in exchange for defendants taking a course designed to help them complete probation exceeds the committee's jurisdiction.
Circuit Judge Manuel Lopez said the nonbinding ruling is unlikely to change much at the courthouse.
He will keep cutting community service hours in half for probationers who volunteer to pay $65 for the four-hour class. He expects most felony judges, however, will continue to stay away from the program.
"A majority of judges are uncomfortable with Bonanno," Lopez said Wednesday. "That's their right to feel that way."
"My feeling is if I can keep five people out of (violation of probation) court, then I'm five people ahead of the game," he said. "And that's the only reason I'm doing it in the first place."
Bonanno served 19 years as a judge in Hillsborough County. Facing questions about a courthouse affair, the sealing of cases and the purchase of a $450,000 model home, he resigned to stop a state House committee's impeachment proceedings.
Now a certified mediator and private lawyer in good standing with the Florida Bar, Bonanno has pitched his business to judges individually and as a group over lunch at Valencia Garden.
Judges Daniel Perry, Wayne Timmerman and Lopez saw no conflict and decided the course might help some of the thousands of offenders who trip up each year on their probation.
Since July, dozens of defendants have attended a class at the Probation & Violation Center. A psychiatrist, former probation supervisor and Bonanno provide the instruction. They haven't made any money on the venture yet, the ex-judge said, but hope to take the model statewide.
The Florida Code of Judicial Conduct says that referrals by judges must not create the appearance that they are using their office to raise funds for the private interests of others.
Because the three Hillsborough judges are not ordering anyone to attend Bonanno's course, their actions are permitted under judicial canons, the ethics committee said.
The committee ended its opinion on a cautionary note.
"Any time a defendant is required to participate in a program not specifically authorized by statute, then the judge should be personally satisfied that the program is a well-run program and it truly serves the purpose for which it is intended," the ruling states.
Circuit Judge Gregory Holder, who previously called for the investigation that led to Bonanno's resignation, said he never considered the Probation & Violation Center model an ethical matter.
He just doesn't think people should get a pass on community service hours — often the only benefit the community gets from their criminal behavior, he said.
"It's not ethics, it's not morals," Holder said. "I'm just not going to allow people to basically buy off community service in a money-making scheme for anyone."
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.