NEW PORT RICHEY — Jeremiah Hawkes became ensnared this week in a scandal swirling through the highest levels of Florida's court system when the body investigating his father, an appellate judge, said the son benefitted from improper help by a state employee.
The Judicial Qualifications Commission in Tallahassee laid out a litany of formal charges Tuesday against 1st District Court of Appeal Judge Paul M. Hawkes. Among them was an allegation that Judge Hawkes directed his law clerk to assist his son in preparing a legal brief for a case that the 1st DCA had decided and which ended up in front of the Florida Supreme Court.
The JQC called the action "a misuse of a state asset for the benefit of your son" and "completely improper."
Jeremiah Hawkes, a former general counsel for the Florida House of Representatives who is now a top administrator at the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, spoke to the Times Wednesday and questioned why investigators never sought his version of events.
"Until I found out about the JQC investigation, I hadn't heard word one," he said. "If you're going to do a thorough investigation and you're going to make an allegation of misconduct that reflects on me and on my father … I think that yeah, you would talk to some people."
If anyone had contacted him, here are some of the things Jeremiah Hawkes would have said:
• That the law clerk, Renee Hill, read just one of many briefs Hawkes wrote in Maas v. Olive, basically proofreading it for grammar.
• That when the case moved from the 1st DCA — his father's court — to the state Supreme Court, Paul Hawkes had not been part of the three-judge panel that reviewed the case and wrote the opinion.
• That Paul Hawkes at the time was serving on the Commission on Capital Cases, which is the entity Jeremiah Hawkes was representing in court. The younger Hawkes said he consulted all the commissioners about legal strategy, his father included.
"There was a very large process and they're homing in a very small part of it," Jeremiah Hawkes said. "Somebody read the brief and made a couple grammatical comments, and now suddenly that's an attempt to undermine the whole court."
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Paul Hawkes has become known around the state as the judge who pushed for funding of a new courthouse for the 1st DCA, a $50 million boondoggle dubbed the "Taj Mahal."
The JQC said he forced the removal of a staffer who questioned the courthouse project, attempted to get a furniture vendor to pay for a trip for him and two family members, intimidated several staffers and destroyed public documents.
Paul Hawkes has 20 days to respond to the charges and will likely face trial before the commission. He could face a reprimand, fine, suspension or removal from office.
The matter involving Jeremiah is the least of the allegations, said Charlie Rose, a professor at Stetson University College of Law.
"The issue of whether or not the clerk looked at his brief is miniscule to other conduct that is alleged," Rose said. "It looks to me that it's just one more thing that was put on the pile — that if it existed by itself, it would probably never raise an eyebrow."
The case at issue was a long-running lawsuit filed by a Tallahassee attorney who represented death row inmates. Mark Olive sued the state Commission on Capital Cases over a law capping fees that death row attorneys can collect.
A three-judge panel at the 1st DCA sent the case to the Florida Supreme Court.
Jeremiah Hawkes was just 29 when the case landed in his lap in 2006. He said he was working as an attorney for the House of Representatives when the lawyer who would have normally been tasked with defending the law retired.
He wrote many drafts of many briefs, he said, and consulted his father throughout the process.
"Because that was the commissioner that clearly I knew the best, I went and talked to him," Jeremiah Hawkes said.
Every legal step, he said, was ratified by the full commission.
Jeremiah Hawkes said he remembers Hill, the clerk, having minimal involvement.
"She made a couple of small changes, like 'you should capitalize here,' " Hawkes said. "It wasn't very much. It's not like she did any research or any drafting."
He acknowledged Hill worked for his father only at the appellate court and did not have any other connection to the commission.
"I don't thinking there's anything wrong when the judge is on the commission and he uses his staff," Hawkes said.
The Supreme Court heard the case in September of 2007. It was Hawkes' first time arguing a case in front of the high court and he ended up on the losing side of a 4-3 decision. But the justices compromised, leaving the fee cap in place while allowing a provision for trial judges to pay attorneys more money under certain circumstances.
Steve Hanlon, who represented Olive in the suit, said he didn't recall witnessing or hearing about anything improper.
"It's unfortunate. It's just unfortunate," Hanlon said of the allegations. "But the result (of the case) as far as we're concerned, is a very good result."
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In early 2009, Jeremiah Hawkes' political connections led him to Pasco County. Then-Sheriff Bob White had met him during a trip to Tallahassee, while Hawkes was working for House Speaker Marco Rubio.When Rubio's term ended, Hawkes was available and White offered him the job as his general counsel.
Then earlier this year, just a week before announcing his own retirement, White awarded Hawkes, 34, a promotion to chief of the Sheriff's Office management services bureau. He now oversees human resources, general counsel, the child protective investigative division, the fiscal unit and several other departments, earning an annual salary of $94,931.
Rose, the law professor, said he doesn't think the law clerk issue from 2008 poses an ethical problem for the younger Hawkes, though he is somewhat tainted by his personal and professional relationship with his father.
Jeremiah Hawkes, Rose said, is one on "a list of folks who have sort of fallen within the blast radius of this particular probable cause determination."
Brooke Kennerly, executive director of the JQC, said she didn't know why Jeremiah Hawkes was not questioned by investigators, but stressed the JQC's charges represent only one side of the case.
Hawkes defended himself and his father, noting that no one ever cried foul in the five years since he worked on the Olive case.
"I think it really kind of demonstrates that this whole thing is a witch hunt," he said.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6245. Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.