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Four Tampa City Council candidates have had brushes with the law

TAMPA — Youthful indiscretions. Careless mistakes. Forgotten tickets. Someone else's fault.

Those are some of the reasons Tampa City Council candidates gave when explaining past transgressions. The St. Petersburg Times checked the state criminal records of all candidates in the March 1 election and asked those who had been arrested for their stories.

For some, mistakes became a springboard to success. For others, they are lessons learned.

• • •

District 5 council candidate Lynette "Tracee" Judge cleaned up some unfinished business with the law recently. Judge, 46, turned herself in to the Leon County Sheriff's Office Feb. 4 after learning from the Times that she was wanted on three bench warrants for unresolved 2003 check fraud cases.

Three checks signed with Judge's name were written in 2002 in Tallahassee, said Douglas Hall, a Leon County assistant state attorney who is head of the worthless check division. The businesses — a car dealership and a repair shop — were paid back between 2003 and 2004, Hall said, through a restitution program.

But service fees to the State Attorney's Office were never settled.

"It just kind of stayed out there because we never heard back from her," Hall said.

Judge said she paid $55 in fees Monday.

"It is my responsibility to fix this," Judge told the Times last week.

The fraud, she said, occurred years ago when a secretary signed her name to checks for a towing business Judge had invested $10,000 in.

Since she lived in Tampa, Judge hired an attorney to represent her in Tallahassee. But nobody appeared on her behalf in court in August 2004, leading to the three bench warrants.

Judge never followed up with the attorney, whom she paid up to $1,300 in three cash installments.

"I see how stupid and naive that sounds now," she said. "That was my mistake."

She's now considering taking action against the attorney through the bar association.

Judge also completed a diversion program when she was charged in 1983 for shoplifting clothes from a department store. Then 18, she put two shirts and two pants in a plastic bag in the dressing room and left the store without paying, according to a police report.

Judge says she paid for suits that she had changed to have smaller-sized pants. "I kind of knew it was wrong, but I didn't know it was a crime," she said.

Judge admits learning a lesson the hard way but, as a school social worker, she tells students to be careful what they do now so it won't come back to bite them in the future.

• • •

Kelly Benjamin, 35, had a rough start. His father died in a train accident, leaving his mother to raise him alone. She lost her house, got behind on bills and struggled with depression. Benjamin bounced from friends' couches to the streets.

In July 1994, Tampa police caught him pouring saltwater into the coin slots of two hotel soda machines, which forced out their contents. In September 1994, police arrested him on suspicion of burglary. Benjamin said an ex-girlfriend — whom he remains friends with today — had left a door open for him at her house and invited him to stay since he was homeless at the time.

"Her mother did not approve of the relationship we had," Benjamin said, and she called police. "There was no burglary."

The courts lumped both of the incidents together and sentenced Benjamin under the provisions of the Youthful Offender Act. The 1978 law is meant to keep young people out of prison through educational, substance abuse and counseling programs.

As a teen and young adult, Benjamin worked for a Tampa library, a labor union and a coffee shop, sometimes holding down two jobs. He put himself through college and ran a low-powered radio station out of his house in Seminole Heights. In November 1997, the U.S. Marshals Service and other law officers entered his home with a federal warrant, assisting the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees radio stations.

An officer approached a sleeping Benjamin and tripped over a wooden cigar box. Inside were a clear bag with six grams of marijuana, a plastic water pipe, miniature scale, smoke pipes and cigarette rolling papers, a Tampa police report said.

Benjamin said it all belonged to one of the DJs who was in and out of his house at all times of the day and night. But he pleaded no contest to marijuana possession and received six months of probation, court records show.

"These are things that were minor but I learned from them, and I put my life back on track," said Benjamin, who is running to represent West Tampa in District 6.

Benjamin said he has spent the years since then trying to influence other children and young adults as a college and elementary school teacher and volunteer art teacher.

• • •

Between high school and his first year at the University of Florida, City Council candidate Michael Ciftci was criminally charged three times in Okeechobee County, where he grew up.

As a high school senior in November 2001, he was accused of stealing from a Walmart. Ciftci said with his mother going through a divorce, "It was a time in my life [when] I was crying out for attention."

Ciftci pleaded guilty and the judge withheld adjudication, state records show. He was fined $305.

"When you make mistakes, you own up to them, and I pleaded appropriately," said Ciftci, who is seeking the at-large District 3 seat. "I knew I was in the wrong."

On New Year's Eve a month later, Ciftci and six friends drove to South Fork High School in Stuart in the middle of the night and poured diesel fuel on the football field. Ciftci called it "a high school prank."

The charges of criminal mischief and property damage under $200 were eventually dropped.

In August 2003, the summer following his freshman year in Gainesville, a police officer found a small amount of marijuana in his car. "Like most college students, I was experimenting and trying things out," he said. "It was a period of my life I learned a lot from."

Because a drug conviction would annul his college scholarship, Ciftci said, he agreed to pretrial intervention and the judge dropped the charge.

• • •

Besides a drunken-driving citation from more than 30 years ago that appears on a state driving record, Joseph Citro had one arrest. And it came from a fishing license.

Eleven years ago, he said, he was given a citation for fishing without a license but put the citation in his pocket and forgot to deal with it. Three years later during a traffic stop, he learned a misdemeanor warrant had been issued for his arrest.

That one incident, he said, cost him a fine, court costs, bail, car impounding and half a day's wages. Citro is seeking the District 4 seat representing South Tampa.

"I should have had it expunged," he said. "But I like to keep it on my record just to remind me, don't put off 'til tomorrow what you could do today."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Four Tampa City Council candidates have had brushes with the law 02/12/11 [Last modified: Sunday, February 13, 2011 12:47pm]
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