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A cooking pot full of cash

W.D. Childers has been busy spreading to the courts the kind of chaos that once surrounded him in the Legislature.

Associated Press (2003)

W.D. Childers has been busy spreading to the courts the kind of chaos that once surrounded him in the Legislature.

Former Florida Senate President W.D. Childers of Pensacola was the poster child for term limits when Floridians voted to restrict state legislators to eight years in office. For almost 30 years the "banty rooster'' was a major player in state government. Few state lawmakers were as colorful or as clever at sneaking laws through.

When term limits sent him packing in 2000, he went home and ran for the Escambia County Commission. A bribery conviction and a cooking pot filled with cash turned out to be his undoing. Now his name has all but disappeared from the pages of Florida newspapers, but he's been busy spreading the kind of chaos that once surrounded him in the Legislature to the courts.

Twice in the last five years judges at two different appellate courts were ready to overturn his bribery conviction until a majority of their fellow judges stepped in and took a second vote.

It happened first, and most prominently, at the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee where the fallout among judges has lingered to this day.

The Tallahassee court was about to overturn his conviction in 2005, but a majority of judges stepped in and forced reconsideration by the entire 15-member court. Then in early 2006 the court voted 10-4 to uphold the conviction.

It happened again in Atlanta this month after Childers went to federal court, saying the trial judge violated his constitutional right to fully confront a key witness.

A year ago a three-judge panel at the Atlanta court voted 2-1 to free Childers, but a majority of the judges stepped in and forced a vote of all 12 judges. A new opinion upholding the convictions was released June 2.

The new decision rejected Childers' claim by a vote of 10-2.

"En banc'' decisions by any appellate court are rare. It happens less than 1 percent of the time in Atlanta, court officials say.

And in both situations the final opinions have the look of a rebuke to the judges who initially attempted to free a widely known politician.

In Tallahassee the decision served to dramatically split a court that has been in a state of war ever since. It even led to a Judicial Qualifications Commission investigation and a public reprimand for one of the judges who publicly questioned another judge's participation in the case.

In Atlanta, the court's senior judge, Gerald B. Tjoflat, dissented in the initial decision that would have freed Childers and returned to write the majority 10-2 opinion when the whole court participated.

Judge Rosemary Barkett, a former member of the Florida Supreme Court, was one of two judges who initially voted to free Childers and was in the two-judge minority that dissented when the entire court voted.

A jury convicted Childers in 2003, relying to a large degree on the testimony of Willie Junior, a fellow commissioner who said Childers gave him a cooking pot full of cash as partial payment of a $100,000 bribe in return for his vote on the purchase of land for a soccer complex.

Childers appealed to the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. The initial opinion to overturn his conviction was written by Judge Charles Kahn, a former resident of Pensacola and onetime law partner of Fred Levin, one of Childers' closest friends.

Any decision to grant Childers a new trial would have freed him. Junior, the key witness against him, was mysteriously found dead underneath his house at about the same time the Tallahassee court heard arguments on Childers' appeal.

Judge Michael Allen raised questions about Kahn's participation in the case, noting that public perception would not be good for the court. Allen raised those questions in a written opinion that caused Levin's son to file a formal complaint with the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

After a hearing that forced most members of the court to choose sides, Allen was reprimanded for conduct unbecoming a judge. Kahn was investigated after most of his fellow judges filed an unrelated complaint accusing him of sexually harassing women who worked for the courts. The JQC took no public action against Kahn.

Kahn and Allen have since resigned from the court. Allen is practicing law in Tallahassee and Kahn is now a federal magistrate in Pensacola.

Childers isn't talking these days, but you have to believe he's enjoying the uproar.

Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com.

A cooking pot full of cash 06/18/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 18, 2011 4:30am]
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