TAMPA — Last week, the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office cleared a detective of allegations that he forged a judge's initials.
In the days that followed, questions lingered.
They weren't about the detective. In discreet conversations at the courthouse, people asked:
Why did a judge say unequivocally that he did not alter a document, only to admit a week later that anything was possible because he had no recollection of the event?
Why did another judge phone his colleague to ask about the alleged discrepancy, when the colleague was likely going to be a witness in the case?
Neither of the judges would discuss the case with the Times.
An unusual case
Legal experts agreed that the case was unusual, but they stopped short of suggesting outright misconduct.
The case started out routine. In October 2006, Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe gave sheriff's detectives permission to search a home.
Before the search, Detective Ronnie Cooper realized he had typed the wrong apartment number on the warrant. Cooper says he went to Tharpe's home to get the judge to change it.
Recently, defense attorney Paul S. Carr said he didn't think the changes and accompanying initials matched Tharpe's handwriting.
The attorney aired his concerns in a letter to Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet, who is presiding over the drug case that resulted from the search warrant.
In an interview with sheriff's investigators, Sleet said he notified a prosecutor about Carr's letter. Then Sleet faxed Tharpe the disputed search warrant to get him to verify whether the initials were added by him.
At an April 28 court hearing, Sleet informed attorneys that Tharpe said the handwriting wasn't his.
While investigating allegations about the search warrant, sheriff's attorney Tony Peluso took issue with Sleet's "activist role" in the case. During an interview with Tharpe, the attorney suggested that Sleet had taken advantage of the fact that a witness in the case was also a colleague.
Judges are allowed to consult with one another on issues that will help them carry out their duties. They are not supposed to independently investigate facts.
Legal experts generally agreed that Sleet did not cross a line by making his initial inquiry. Though one expert said it may have been more prudent not to contact Tharpe directly, the consensus was that Sleet properly informed all parties of his findings and let them take things from there.
"I think from the presiding judge's perspective, he saw this as more of a matter of collegiality and courtesy than a breach of protocol," speculated Laurie Levenson, who lectures on judicial ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "It's unusual, but I don't think it's unethical."
A question of politics
Charles Rose, a law professor familiar with Sleet's recent decisions, wondered if the Sheriff's Office's criticism of the judge was political.
In April, Sleet threw out a huge Latin Kings gang case that resulted from months of work by local law enforcement, including the Sheriff's Office, Rose noted.
"I am sure he is not very popular with all those cops who relied on a bad informant," said Rose, who teaches at Stetson University College of Law. "This is not misconduct. That's sour grapes on the part of law enforcement."
On May 7, at defense attorney Carr's request, Tharpe signed a sworn affidavit stating that the initials and altered numbers the search warrant weren't written by him. In doing so, he endangered the reputation of Cooper, the detective.
Yet seven days later, Tharpe, a personal friend of Sheriff David Gee's, said he thinks very highly of the detective. In the same interview with sheriff's investigators, he said he doesn't hold Carr in high regard.
Tharpe also said that he didn't look at the numbers before signing the affidavit. He said he could not dispute Cooper's version of what happened with the warrant because the judge didn't recall dealing with it.
Sheriff's Chief Deputy Jose Docobo shrugged off Tharpe's imprecise memory.
He "made a mistake," Docobo said. "He's only human."
But Levenson, the Loyola professor, said Tharpe's second-guessing raised concerns about his honesty on the affidavit.
"That to me is much more problematic," she said. "He's the one on the hot seat, not the presiding judge."
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.