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Delay judgment; avoid the rush

Let's say that somebody you know about is accused of doing something bad.

You tend to have one of two reactions:

You might say: "That bum! I KNEW he was no good."

Or, you might say: "Him? He would NEVER do anything like that."

What you usually don't say is something like:

"These are serious allegations. I hope they are not true. If they are, he should be punished. But I'll wait to see what is proved."

But maybe that's exactly what we ought to say when it comes to the Hillsborough County Courthouse.

This week some sensational accusations came out. They included:

That a judge traded favorable rulings for sex.

That a prosecutor and a judge used courtroom signals to fix cases.

That the top prosecutor dropped a case for campaign contributions.

That a big-deal lawyer bought off a federal judge.

Now, repeat this about 100 times: None of it is proved.

None of it is even officially charged.

All of this hot stuff, this dynamite, this life-wrecking info, is, so far, pure hearsay.

It's one defense lawyer, and a controversial one at that, saying that another defense lawyer told him all that stuff.

It's a guy who says he heard it from another guy.

Not exactly evidence of Perry Mason caliber.

Judge Wapner, either.

What we know for sure, so far, is that the feds have charged ONE former prosecutor, John Valenti, and ONE defense lawyer, Charles Corces, with fixing a case in 1991.

We also know that the feds are continuing to investigate, and that Valenti is cooperating with them. Maybe they'll bring more charges. Maybe not.

What made the big headlines this week was the word of a witness in the Valenti-Corces case, another defense lawyer named Manuel Machin.

It was Machin who had turned in Corces, saying Corces had approached him about fixing the case. It was Machin who agreed to wear a bug to record his conversations with Corces.

And it was Machin, in his sworn pretrial deposition, who said that Corces also had bragged to him about all this other supposed wrongdoing.

That's what came out this week. This gets confusing, but Machin's statements were made public by the lawyers who had been representing Valenti.

Now everybody is furious. They are publicly accused by deposition.

Circuit Judge Robert H. Bonanno bitterly complained Tuesday that there is no way to defend himself against the sex-for-cases allegation.

Judge Harry Lee Coe III, alleged in the deposition to have traded courtroom signals with a prosecutor to fix cases, said it's all "politics." Coe is thinking about running for state attorney.

But if it's politics, it's equal-opportunity politics, because Machin also said Corces bragged of a case-fixing payoff to State Attorney Bill James, a strait-laced ex-fed who always has been above reproach.

Sexual payoffs? Prosecutors tugging on their ties in the courtroom to signal judges, kind of like baseball managers delivering signals from the dugout?

Bill James on the take, for God's sake?

Either Corces didn't say all this stuff, or he said it and was being a lying braggart, or he said it and it's true.

We'll know it's true only if the feds bring a charge, proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

Unfortunately, none of it can ever be "proved" false.

A lot of people on Tuesday were trying to place blame. But who's to blame?

Machin? For testifying to what he swears to be the truth?

The lawyers who made it public? They had the right.

The reporters who told the world? They have a right to report the public record _ in fact, the obligation not to censor it, especially such accusations against people with such power over the rest of us.

So neither the witness, nor the lawyers, nor the reporters kept any of it secret from you.

Now it's all in your lap. It's up to you to decide what to think. Please don't be offended at a mild suggestion, something like:

"These are serious allegations. I hope they are not true. If they are, the people involved should be punished. But I will wait to see what is proved."