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Elder Renke faces discipline from state Bar

Already embroiled in a Republican Party power struggle, attorney John Renke II now faces discipline from the Florida Bar for the same acts that got his son removed as a judge.

On July 24, a Florida Bar referee ruled that the senior Renke violated election laws by giving an illegal $98,500 loan to his son's 2002 judicial campaign. John Renke III was thrown off the Pinellas-Pasco circuit bench two years ago for accepting that loan, as well as and misrepresenting his qualifications.

"He (Renke II) was prosecuted exactly for what his son was cited for," said Florida Bar staff attorney Jodi Thompson, "except for giving instead of receiving."

Renke, 62, of New Port Richey faces several possible punishments, including reprimand, suspension or disbarment. Thompson said the Bar hasn't decided which to recommend to the Florida Supreme Court.

Renke II insists he'll fight, saying the charge is unfair. He vowed Wednesday to appeal to federal courts if the state Supreme Court punishes him.

"It's the craziest thing I've ever seen," he said, accusing the bar of wrongly setting rules for private employment payments.

Renke can defend himself at another hearing in the next 30 days.

On Aug. 26, he also will find out what Republican voters think of him. Bill Bunting, the party's county chairman, is challenging Renke for his state party committeeman post. The race for the unpaid party post that normally is an afterthought has been drawing in a who's who of party leaders.

In fact, Gov. Charlie Crist weighed in with recorded phone message to voters Wednesday, urging them to vote for Bunting. It came after an anonymous mailing ripped Bunting for misdemeanor arrests for indecent exposure, burglary and criminal mischief. They happened about five decades ago.

"Please don't let these negative campaign tactics influence your decision. ... Bill Bunting is a great Republican and great patriot," Crist says in the recording.

Renke, a former lawmaker, has held the GOP committeeman post since 1994. But Bunting blames him for not working hard enough. Renke says he broke with Bunting on a 2006 house race. They also disagreed on who got to go to the 2004 national party convention.

Renke dismissed the effects of the Bar action or the governor's support, saying voters will note he has been a Republican longer than Bunting.

"I have never had any type of Bar offense, criminal offense, other than this recommendation," Renke said. "I don't compare that with indecent exposure, burglary."

Bunting declined to comment on the Bar case, saying he only had second-hand information.

The Bar complaint against Renke II accused him of making "misrepresentations" to the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which investigated his son's campaign for judge.

In 2005, the father testified that the money wasn't a campaign loan. He said it was his son's share of a large settlement the firm had won.

But the father paid the son in 2002, the Florida Supreme Court noted, while the settlement wasn't approved until 2003. Even the senior Renke's wife told the JQC the money was to "cover campaign expenses," according to the Bar's October 2007 complaint provided Wednesday.

The Florida Bar said the elder Renke "knowingly made a false statement" to the JQC, committed a "criminal act" for trying to disguise campaign money. The Bar accused him of "dishonesty," "fraud" and "deceit."

Neither Renke has ever been charged with crime.

In ousting Renke III, the state's highest court called his campaign a "fraud" for misrepresenting his qualifications, inflating his experience and using the $98,500. The bar also took him to task for the Renkes enlisting the local Republican Party in the nonpartisan judicial race.

The Bar punished the younger Renke with a 30-day suspension earlier this year, too.

The Pasco GOP was fined $3,000 for failing to report contributions and a mailing supporting Renke III in the judicial race. While Bunting helped rally support for Renke III at the time, he was not chairman.

"I didn't know anything about where the money was coming from," Bunting said Wednesday. "He's a nice kid and a nice man, there's no question about that. About what I found out later on, it put a knot in my stomach."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Elder Renke faces discipline from state Bar 08/13/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 17, 2008 7:25pm]
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