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Three Hillsborough court clerks resign amid criminal inquiry

TAMPA — Three Hillsborough County court clerks have resigned under pressure and at least three more are under criminal investigation for abusing their positions, the clerk of the circuit court said Monday.

"You can't do anything in the clerk's office that benefits you personally," said Pat Frank, clerk of the circuit court. "We're continuing to look at this thing. I don't know what we're going to find."

For months, the Clerk of Courts Office has been investigating six to eight employees in its traffic division, Frank said. Last week, the Sheriff's Office joined in.

The nature and extent of clerks' misconduct is unclear, but the incident that sparked the investigation, detailed in personnel records, sheds some light.

Late last year, three clerks colluded to handle one's court documents so she did not have to appear in court, records show.

Cedrina Ervin, 22, avoided using a vacation day to attend a traffic-citation hearing by having a co-worker, Luis Salas-Farfan, file documents for her in court. Another clerk, Tanisha Benton, acted as an intermediary.

All three failed to follow protocols for handling traffic citations of clerks or their friends or family. And Ervin lagged in filing mandatory disclosure forms intended to inform supervisors when clerks are processed through the court system they serve, records show.

But Salas-Farfan argues the clerks' violations were innocuous. Ervin could have waived her court appearance by mailing in documents, he said in an interview, so what's the difference if he delivered them? Ervin was still fined for her citation.

Their violations may have gone unnoticed if it weren't for Kendrick Hall — a 25-year-old with 19 arrests in Hillsborough alone, records show. Three weeks after Ervin dodged her hearing, her boyfriend Hall led police on a chase in her car. Driving with a revoked license, he abandoned her car and ran away.

Ervin retrieved her car from the impound and was criminally charged for allowing Hall to operate it. Weeks later, police visited Ervin's office to question her. The clerk's office then began looking into her past.

Two months later, the office found she showed "an egregious level of disrespect for her position" in handling tickets for an expired license and registration.

According to internal investigations detailed in the three clerks' personnel records, Benton introduced Ervin to Salas-Farfan because he worked in the courtroom where Ervin's hearing on the tickets was scheduled. Salas-Farfan took two documents — proof of a valid license and registration — to his court and presented them to a hearing officer a day before her scheduled hearing. The hearing officer dismissed one charge and fined her for the other.

But Salas-Farfan was missing an essential document, an affidavit of defense, which waives a defendant's appearance in court if the hearing officer receives it by the scheduled hearing.

On Feb. 1, a clerk's office investigation recommended all three be dismissed. Ervin's report states that "she cannot be trusted to do the right thing and follow the rules if situations from her personal life are involved in the legal system."

All three resigned the next day.

Salas-Farfan said that at the time, he thought nothing of delivering Ervin's documents. They all worked downtown, and he had to travel to the north Tampa courthouse where her hearing was scheduled anyway. He said he did not know why she didn't give him the affidavit of defense, "which takes a minute to fill out."

When he gave the documents to the hearing officer, Salas-Farfan said the officer disregarded the missing affidavit "because she works for the clerk's office, and I told him I didn't know if I misplaced it."

He believes he was discharged mainly for not properly disclosing the situation. Clerk employees are supposed to disclose if they or their family or friends are involved in court proceedings.

"I saw so many people in court and I didn't file those forms," he said. "That's what they're expecting me to do, but I'm so busy."

Salas-Farfan's personnel records show glowing reviews for eight years of service.

"His value as an outstanding Clerk employee has been diminished by his unethical activity," the office investigation concludes, "which requires a necessary loss for both him and the office."

Three Hillsborough court clerks resign amid criminal inquiry 04/25/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 26, 2011 8:35am]
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