Sunday, May 27, 2018

Questions over case's handling preceded departure of Hillsborough's chief prosecutor

TAMPA — Over more than two decades as a prosecutor, Karen Stanley put rapists behind bars and sent killers to death row. But the last 10 months of her career were clouded by questions about her handling of a different sort of defendant — a fellow lawyer.

The case reaped for Stanley, then chief staff prosecutor in the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, the disagreement of her elected boss, the disapproval of a powerful judge and the outrage of a crime victim. The episode's only winner might have been the defendant, Henry Sorensen, a Tampa real estate attorney who avoided prosecution for a brazen effort to forge a court opinion.

Stanley, 57, and Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober say disputes over Stanley's handling of the Sorensen case had nothing to do with her decision to resign from the State Attorney's Office in July and run for election as a judge, a move that surprised many in Hillsborough County's closely knit legal community.

The case nevertheless offers a rare glimpse of missteps and discord within the office of a state attorney who is keenly attentive to projecting an immaculate public image. It is also an illustration of how a savvy lawyer, availing himself of professional connections, can avoid severe penalties for criminal behavior — even when an influential judge is among his enemies.

Janet Tomczyk, a former client of Sorensen's who almost lost $41,500 to his scheme, said she is disgusted by the lenient punishment he received — 50 hours of community service and minor court administrative fees — for a felony that could have landed him in prison for five years.

"This is outrageous. Totally outrageous," Tomczyk said. "The courts expect citizens, laymen, to abide by the law. What makes you think you're above the law? What makes you think you can screw people?"

A judge embarrassed

Like many unhappy Sun Belt stories, Sorensen's began with a land deal. Fred and Janet Tomczyk, South Carolina residents, hired him to help them recoup a $15,500 deposit they had put down on a three-bedroom house they decided not to buy in The Villages, the massive retirement community south of Ocala.

After a trial judge ruled against them, they asked Sorensen, 44, to file an appeal. For reasons that remain unclear, he didn't do so.

Sorensen instead misled the Tomczyks by "providing false status updates on the progress of the appeal," according to Florida Bar disciplinary records. The coup de gras was his fabrication of a two-page opinion from Florida's 5th District Court of Appeal that purported to reverse the trial court ruling.

Janet Tomczyk, 57, was suspicious because the document was not signed by a judge. In September 2011, she tried to verify its authenticity with the appeals court in Daytona Beach.

Richard Orfinger, then the 5th District appellate court's chief judge, did not recognize the ersatz opinion. He wrote to Sorensen. A week later he heard back, not from the lawyer, but from a lawyer for the lawyer.

Sorensen, through his attorney, acknowledged doctoring the fake decision from Orfinger's court, saying he had used "extremely poor judgment." He said he would pay the Tomczyks $27,500 — the sum of his own fees, and the money they lost the chance to win back when he didn't appeal the lower court ruling — and about $14,000 in the opposing attorney's fees for which the couple was responsible. Sorensen also reported what he had done to the Florida Bar.

It wasn't enough. Orfinger, outraged, sent a letter to Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober in October 2011 stating that "it appears that Mr. Sorensen's conduct may violate Florida's law against forgery" and asking that prosecutors "keep me advised regarding any action taken" on the case.

"This matter is embarrassing to me, the legal profession and the judicial system, and I can assure you that it is not indicative of the legal profession in general," Orfinger wrote in a separate letter to the Tomczyks. In his entire career, Orfinger told the couple, he could not recall a similar act of misconduct.

Just as odd was what happened once the chief judge's complaint reached the State Attorney's Office: nothing.

Delay, then deal

By the fall of 2011, Karen Stanley had long since given up handling the routine cases that flood daily through the Hillsborough Circuit Court system. She began working at the office in 1989, gained renown as a dogged and detail-oriented prosecutor of sex crimes, and in 2001 was named chief assistant state attorney, in charge of day-to-day supervision of the office's 120 lawyers.

Still included in her portfolio were some high-profile cases — in 2011, she was on the team that won a conviction in the trial of cop killer Humberto Delgado Jr. — and charges against defendants who are lawyers. Sorensen's case, in the latter category, was assigned to her when the State Attorney's Office received Orfinger's complaint.

Months passed. No charges were filed against Sorensen, and no updates were sent to Orfinger. The delay, Stanley told the Tampa Bay Times, was rooted in problems scheduling meetings with Sorensen's lawyer.

"That's typical in a lot of these cases," Stanley said. "It's hard to get everybody together." She acknowledged that "it probably took longer than the average third-degree felony."

The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office did not file a charge against Sorensen until September 2012, and then only after Orfinger had begun pressing prosecutors and Bar officials to explain what was going on.

On Aug. 22, after he learned that Stanley was handling Sorensen's criminal case, Orfinger personally wrote her an email. The message was obtained by the Times from the State Attorney's Office through a public records request.

"I would appreciate an update on what action, if any, your office has taken on this matter and why we have not been kept advised by your office," the chief judge wrote. "This matter is of great concern to the Court. I hope your office shares that concern."

Stanley charged Sorensen with felony forgery on Sept. 4. In October, according to court records, she agreed to dismiss the charge in exchange for Sorensen's completion of a pretrial intervention program lasting 18 months. Such arrangements are common for nonviolent misdemeanor defendants and in some cases for those who commit low-level felony offenses.

Sorensen had no previous criminal record. He might also have had an advantage in his choice of criminal defense attorney. The man who negotiated the deal on his behalf was Dale Sisco, a Tampa lawyer who said he got to know Sorensen when they represented opposing clients in several cases.

Sisco is a former prosecutor who worked in the trenches at the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office with Karen Stanley early in their careers. More recently, he has also endorsed Stanley for judge and contributed to her campaign. He said her willingness to show mercy despite the airtight evidence against his client was indicative of her fairness.

"One of the reasons why I think that Karen would make an excellent judge is that she's willing to listen to both sides," Sisco said in an interview. "Clearly, what he did was wrong. But he stepped up and admitted to what he did wrong and accepted responsibility for that."

Sorensen did not return calls for comment. A woman who answered the door at his listed address — an expansive, stucco-and-tile home in an upscale Land O'Lakes subdivision — asked a reporter to leave the property.

A departure, a call

For the first half of this year, Sorensen receded from prosecutors' attention — one more Florida attorney who had lived to fight another day after an outlandish bout of misconduct.

But in June, when Janet Tomczyk learned the Florida Bar was preparing to impose a three-year suspension on Sorensen rather than disbarment, she wrote an angry letter to Orfinger and sent a copy to Ober.

That month, records indicate, the State Attorney's Office showed renewed interest in the case. At the end of June, Mike Sinacore, a senior prosecutor and one of Ober's lieutenants, wrote an email to the Bar asking for information on Sorensen.

Not long afterward, at 10:51 a.m. on July 2, Stanley officially ended her 24-year career as a prosecutor with a brief resignation letter to Sinacore from her smartphone. "It is with a great deal of sadness that I am tendering my resignation," she wrote. "While I care a great deal about the office and the wonderful people employed there, it is time for me to pursue other interests."

Stanley told the Times that the sending of the email from her phone did not signal an abrupt choice to resign, but was merely convenient. She said she had personally informed Ober that she was quitting ahead of time. She publicly announced her departure, and judicial candidacy, on July 16.

Late in July, meanwhile, Tomczyk got the kind of call rarely received from an elected prosecutor. Ober, she said, wanted to say he was sorry.

"He called, in essence, to apologize for the handling of this, and he said this case should have never taken the path that it took," Tomczyk recalled.

Ober told her he had only recently learned the full details of Sorensen's case and that he did not agree with the deal the State Attorney's Office had approved, Tomczyk said.

She said he also had news about the prosecutor who had overseen the case: "He said, 'It was mishandled to the point where I had to force my assistant into resignation.' "

'I did not agree'

Tomczyk's account is starkly at odds with Ober's public statements about Stanley. To all appearances, he is enthusiastically backing her candidacy in the 2014 judicial election, stating in his endorsement that there is "no one who is respected more" in the criminal justice community and "no one more qualified" to wear a black robe. He was among the speakers at her campaign's Aug. 21 kick-off party at Club Skye in Ybor City.

Despite this public show of support, Ober repeatedly refused requests for an interview about Stanley's departure. After several efforts by the Times to speak with him, he issued a written, signed statement.

"The suggestion that Karen Stanley was forced to resign because of her decision in the Sorensen case is false," Ober said in the statement. "When I discussed this matter with Janet Tomczyk, I informed her that I did not know that Sorensen had been allowed into the pretrial intervention program until it already had been done. I also shared with her the fact that I did not agree with that decision, but I was obligated to abide by it … I did not tell Ms. Tomczyk that Karen Stanley had acted improperly or that she had committed any kind of misconduct."

While he would not talk with the Times himself, Ober directed Sinacore to speak on his behalf. Sinacore said the disagreement between Stanley and Ober was not acrimonious and took place at least six months before her resignation.

"It's my understanding — I wasn't privy to the conversation — that they had discussions about it in December or early January," Sinacore said. "It's not my impression that they had some big disagreement or argument over it. It was more like a debriefing."

Asked what Ober thought about Stanley's failure to keep Orfinger in the loop, Sinacore said, "He was upset — upset's the wrong word. His concern was the judge, Orfinger, had not been kept apprised. That's what his concern was, and I know he called Judge Orfinger to tell him that's not the way he would have preferred to have done it."

Stanley said her resignation was based solely on her desire to run for judge, and had nothing to do with the Sorensen case. The courthouse rumor mill was puzzled by her sudden exit, she said, because she had kept her plans secret ahead of time.

"I think it appears to other people that it was hasty," she said. "But it in fact was not."

She dismissed any suggestion that tension lingered between her and her former boss over the case. She said Ober's appraisal of her entire career — not her handling, in her final year as his employee, of an unusual forgery case — is what counts.

"Mark's one of my biggest supporters," Stanley said. "He's helping me in every way he can."

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.

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