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A Times Editorial

Judge's changing story is suspect

“He was happy this has come to an end and is happy with the findings." So goes a statement by Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe, as he tries to sweep a case of possible judicial misconduct under the rug. Only weeks ago, Tharpe sounded the alarm that a warrant to search a drug suspect's home had been forged in his handwriting. Now he's not sure. His turnabout started in an extraordinary way, after a judge hearing the drug case alerted him that the defense suspected irregularities. Both judges need to explain their conduct, and this case needs an outside look.

On Tuesday, the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office cleared Detective Ronnie Cooper of any wrongdoing. At issue was who changed the address on a search warrant for a suspect's home in October 2006. Deputies testified a holiday wreath concealed the true address and that Tharpe authorized the change. Yet earlier this month, Tharpe insisted the initials were not his, pointing the finger back at the police. But an internal sheriff's investigation corroborated meetings and phone records that backed up the deputies' version of events. And much of the tidying, oddly, came at the hands of Tharpe, who seems all too eager to archive the case and forget about the ethical and constitutional questions.

Tharpe cannot wish this away with a press release expressing regrets to the detective and his family. Bigger issues are involved. The right against unreasonable search and seizure is what protects people in their own homes from arbitrary arrest. The suspect's attorney contacted Tharpe May 1, asking him to inspect the warrant and attest that he did not authorize the change. Tharpe signed an affidavit to that effect six days later, saying he had "personal knowledge of the facts," did not change the apartment number, the initials were not his and he had "never given my permission" to change this or any other warrant.

But one week later Tharpe flipped his story. The judge told investigators he had "no recollection" of the event. "Anything is possible," he said. Tharpe said he signed the affidavit at the defense attorney's request — even though he did not read the attorney's letter and held him in low regard. Tharpe also said he did not look at the change in address before attesting that the warrant was a fraud. "I don't know of anything," the judge said, "that's going to jog my memory as to what happened in 2006."

That blanket defense won't do. The speed of Tharpe's memory lapse is phenomenal. At the very least, he owes the public some explanation of his diligence in authorizing search warrants. An outside investigation could help clear the air. The state Judicial Qualifications Commission also needs to explore what Tharpe did, when and why. Another question for the JQC: Why did Circuit Judge Daniel H. Sleet contact Tharpe about the allegations of fraud when Tharpe was about to become central to the drug case over which Sleet presided? Sleet's "no comment" won't do. He is a public official. So far, the only thing we know for sure is that the deputies' stories are consistent; the judge's is not.

Judge's changing story is suspect 05/28/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 30, 2008 10:48am]
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