Hillsborough clerk of courts: Investigation looking into mishandled money, abuse of positions for gain

TAMPA — An investigation into at least 10 Hillsborough Circuit Court clerks has revealed some may have mishandled money and abused their positions for personal gain, the clerk of the circuit court said Wednesday.

The Clerk of Courts Office has suspended eight employees without pay and pressured three more to resign as a result of the investigation, records show.

The office began an internal inquiry into its traffic division late last year after learning three court clerks colluded to help one dodge a court appearance. The office pressured those clerks to resign and began reviewing employee e-mails.

On April 15, records show the office suspended eight other employees.

Three days later, Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank referred the investigation to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, which is now conducting its own investigation.

Although the extent and nature of the misconduct is unclear, Frank provided a point of comparison: Veda Virgil, who she described as a traffic clerk "receiving money for doing things that were inappropriate."

In 2007, Virgil pleaded guilty to taking up to $600 in bribes to falsify driver's license reinstatement forms.

"That was an offense I found justified going over to the Sheriff's Office, and I would put what I'm aware of now in the same category, but not necessarily the same details," said Frank, who had suspended Virgil without pay after early signs of misconduct.

Of the eight suspended employees, seven are court clerks and one is an office assistant. They work in different divisions — criminal, civil, family law, evidence, and three in the scrutinized traffic division.

A hearing officer will decide the fate of their jobs next week.

Six declined to comment or did not return messages. Two others said their suspensions stem from violations of a central rule of the job: Clerks Office employees must formally disclose if they, their friends or family are involved in court proceedings.

An attorney for Rita Mooney, an evidence department clerk, said her violation was based on a technicality. She told her supervisor she received a ticket for not displaying proof of insurance, but didn't fill out the required disclosure form, said the attorney, Delano Stewart.

Aida Delgado, a county civil court clerk, said she didn't understand the rule. She failed to tell her manager her son was charged with driving under the influence because she thought the rule applied only to court proceedings within the employee's department.

"I work in county civil; I don't work in traffic. I didn't realize I had to report it," she said in an interview. "I just misunderstood the policy."

Delgado said Clerks Office officials also told her they found year-old e-mails between her and Luis Salas-Farfan, a former traffic court clerk, that showed another violation: She asked Salas-Farfan if he knew any good lawyers.

"I looked at it like I'm asking a friend. I just said, 'Hey, do you know any attorneys?' " she said. "They said I violated the code of ethics by asking . . . for a favor."

Salas-Farfan said he referred lawyers to five of the eight suspended employees "because I don't see nothing wrong with giving an attorney's name."

Salas-Farfan is one of the employees who resigned in February. He delivered files to his courtroom for a fellow traffic clerk, Cedrina Ervin, allowing her to skip a traffic ticket hearing. Salas-Farfan said his favor was innocuous, as she could have mailed the documents instead. Ervin was still fined for the ticket.

The three clerks were disciplined mainly for not disclosing Ervin's traffic citation, records show.

The six suspended employees who did not comment are Maylen Almira, Sonia Lopez, Laura Trader, Irmarie Cordero Quinones, Mayte Delgado and Gisela Bakke.

The Clerks Office traffic division handles paperwork for all traffic citations in the county. Depending on their rank, some clerks sit in court and aid the hearing officer. Others work in an office, preparing paperwork for payments, running driving records and clearing suspensions of driver's licenses, among other things.

Civil traffic hearing officer Bill Foster estimated the division processes 400,000 citations annually. According to Florida statutes, the average fine is about $180, but can be up to $441. Clerks also collect modest fees for processing paperwork.

Foster said he doesn't know how a clerk could alter citations, such as making a traffic ticket disappear. And he said nearly all the clerks he's worked with have been exemplary.

"I think they've got some of the finest clerks in the state that work here," he said. "And it's a stressful situation. They're all overworked and underpaid."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jack Nicas can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or jnicas@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough clerk of courts: Investigation looking into mishandled money, abuse of positions for gain 04/27/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 28, 2011 7:51am]

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