A former banker featured in a St. Petersburg Times series on people with hidden criminal records was sentenced to three and a half years in prison Tuesday for molesting a Clearwater boy. In 1983, James E. Regan persuaded a Hillsborough judge to seal all public records of his arrest and probation sentence for having oral sex with an 11-year-old Tampa boy.
When Regan was arrested last year on charges of molesting the 13-year-old Clearwater youth, Pinellas prosecutors at first thought he had a clean record. When they learned of Regan's Hillsborough sex arrest from the media, they mistakenly assumed they couldn't use it against him because it was sealed.
As a result, Regan, 45, very nearly avoided prison.
A Pinellas judge offered him a plea bargain, two years' house arrest, normally given to first offenders. But after inquiries from the Times, prosecutors realized they could use the Hillsborough case to argue for a tougher sentence.
They did just that, and last month Circuit Judge Horace A. Andrews changed the plea bargain to three and a half years in prison.
In court Tuesday, Regan formally accepted the plea bargain and was taken into custody to begin his sentence.
Regan's case was described in a five-part Times series called "Hiding the Past." The series, published in March, showed how Florida's sealing law often harms the public.
The sealing law was written in the early '70s to help youthful offenders avoid the stigma of an isolated minor offense. It allows defendants to legally deny that they ever were arrested or charged.
But a six-month Times investigation found that thousands of career criminals, drug dealers, child molesters and violent felons have taken advantage of the law.
Some have used the law to obtain sensitive jobs. Others have avoided prison terms for later crimes because the judge didn't know of their hidden criminal past.
_ By DAVID BARSTOW