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Judge's conduct needs scrutiny

The allegations made by New York stripper Christy Yamanaka against 2nd District Court of Appeal Judge Thomas E. Stringer Sr. warrant a careful look by authorities. If Stringer's only "offense" is that he had an intimate relationship with Yamanaka, then that is a private matter between the judge and his wife of 25 years. But if Stringer attempted to help Yamanaka hide assets from creditors, or if he stole her money as Yamanaka asserts, these are potential crimes that should be investigated by both the Judicial Qualifications Commission and law enforcement.

While Stringer denies that he stole money from Yamanaka or that he shielded her money from creditors, he does admit to knowing her for the past 15 years. The stripper at Scores East Side in New York lives in an apartment leased in the judge's name, and she once rented a house in Hawaii that Stringer had purchased.

Yamanaka claims that at Stringer's suggestion, she gave him hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect against judgments of $315,000 won by Yamanaka's creditors. She claims Stringer now refuses to return the money and plans to sue him.

In Stringer's financial disclosure documents, his cash assets have increased from $11,000 in 2003 to $231,000 by the end of 2006.

Yamanaka claims that the Hawaii house Stringer bought was purchased using her funds, yet she has seen none of the profits from its sale. The house was purchased in late 2004 for $440,000 and sold for $749,000 in December 2006. The judge's spokesman said that Yamanaka was Stringer's business partner in the house venture and the profits were split.

The judge has declined to provide further details to the St. Petersburg Times on his personal and business relationship with Yamanaka, saying that the community should withhold judgment "until all the facts are fully developed in the appropriate forum."

The public deserves to see those facts. There are legitimate questions surrounding their relationship to make this a matter of public concern.

The JQC is authorized to investigate a judge on its own initiative, and it should act if it has not already. The work of the JQC is confidential until there is a finding of cause, so the public will not know if an investigation is ongoing until conclusions are reached. But the members of the JQC have to be aware that Stringer cannot effectively judge others until these matters are cleared up.

If Yamanaka refuses to file a theft complaint against Stringer, an investigation typically would not be pursued by law enforcement. But with such a high-profile figure as Stringer, whose job puts him in a position of public trust, it would behoove local authorities not to let these allegations linger without some scrutiny.

Who might take on this investigation is another matter. As a judge on the 2nd DCA, Stringer hears appellate cases from 14 counties, including Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough. But the Florida Attorney General's Office, not lawyers from the state attorney offices within the district, argues cases before Stringer, which means that local prosecutors should be able to handle any potential charges. And if the investigation of such a high-ranking official is deemed too sensitive, the governor can appoint a special prosecutor. There may even be federal criminal issues, although FBI spokesman David Couvertier wasn't certain.

Judges have a professional responsibility to be ethical in their conduct both on and off the bench, and there is enough smoke swirling around Stringer to suggest he may not have lived up to this standard. This is not a matter that should be dropped when it leaves the headlines.

Judge's conduct needs scrutiny 03/14/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 20, 2008 1:17pm]

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