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Bonanno investigated in mid-1980s

Hillsborough Judge Robert H. Bonanno was the subject of repeated investigations between 1984 and 1987, newly released Hillsborough sheriff's records show.

The investigations have not resulted in any charges.

A sheriff's official Wednesday referred all questions about the investigations to the U.S. Attorney's Office, which is looking into alleged corruption in the Hillsborough Courthouse.

One investigation centered on allegations that Bonanno accepted bribes to release defendants from the Hillsborough Jail without their having to post bail. Others focused on claims by confidential infor-mants that Bonanno fixed cases.

Several times investigations were dropped, only to be revived when new allegations of corruption surfaced against Bonanno. One time, sheriff's officials re-opened their investigations because they were upset at Bonanno's handling of a drug case.

Sheriff's investigators turned over their inconclusive findings to Hillsborough State Attorney Bill James in April 1987 and waited for instructions on "how or if to proceed," the reports show.

Chief Assistant State Attorney Chris Hoyer would not comment Wednesday when asked if any of the investigations remained active.

Sheriff's officials also declined comment.

"On these reports or anything about these reports, I'd have to refer you to the U.S. Attorney's Office," said sheriff's Capt. Gary Terry. He would not say if he had forwarded the reports there.

U.S. Attorney Robert W. Genzman declined comment. His office is conducting an investigation of alleged corruption in the Hillsborough Courthouse. Former prosecutor John Valenti and Tampa lawyer Charles Corces are charged with extorting a bribe from another attorney, Manuel A. Machin, to fix a murder case.

Machin, in a sworn statement to defense attorneys, said Corces told him that Bonanno gave breaks to his clients in exchange for oral sex from Corces' secretary.

Bonanno called the allegations "unsubstantiated lies" at a news conference Tuesday. He did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Hillsborough sheriff's deputies first investigated Bonanno in October 1984. The investigation concerned allegations circulating among bail bondsmen that Bonanno took bribes to release defendants from jail on their own recognizance until trial. That means defendants don't have to post bail.

The investigation reports, obtained by the St. Petersburg Times through a public records request, say:

The jail release scheme allegedly involved Bonanno's friend Lenny Perez and a bail bondsman.

Perez is president of the Tampa letter carriers union. When he ran for that office in 1988, Perez billed himself as a former private investigator for Bonanno and Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez.

According to complaints received by detectives, Perez would contact Bonanno on the bail bondsman's behalf and arrange the release of certain defendants. Then the three would split the payoff from the defendant.

The reports indicate that "Lenny" was written next to some names on Bonanno's log of defendants he had ordered released.

Sheriff's investigators focused on one defendant, Jack Burgess. Court records showed that Bonanno released Burgess on his own recognizance Sept. 9, 1984. Bonanno's log showed he did not order any defendants released that day, the reports say.

In February 1985, Assistant State Attorney Charles Caruso directed the investigators to prepare the reports for possible presenta-tion to a grand jury. It's not clear from the reports what happened next and Caruso, now a federal prosecutor in Vermont, said he could not remember.

The investigation into Bonanno was revived in October 1986 after a defendant in a Tampa racketeering case told sheriff's detectives he had heard Bonanno could "fix almost anything" involving criminal charges.

The man's co-defendant was William Varela; Varela's father-in-law is Lenny Perez, the reports said. The man told investigators that Varela said Perez could be paid between $300 and $400 and he "would then go and use his influence he had with Judge Bonanno to assist any individual who may be in trouble," the reports said.

The name of the man, who became a government witness in the racketeering trial, is blacked out in sheriff's records.

Hillsborough Jail inmate visitation records showed that Perez visited his son-in-law and the unidentified man in May 1986.

Both Tampa lawyer Nick Matassini, who represented Varela in the racketeering case, and Tampa lawyer John Hooker, who represented another defendant in the case, said this week they had never heard any allegations about Bonanno and case-fixing.

"That's the most ludicrous thing I've ever heard," Matassini said. "It is absolutely false."

Both Matassini and Hooker said sheriff's detectives have never questioned them about the allegations.

Hillsborough Detective Don Roman did, however, re-open the 1984 investigation into Bonanno's release of defendants on their own recognizance (ROR).

Roman again tried to locate Jack Burgess. Again, Burgess could not be found. The detective also got court authorization to monitor the phone numbers of people Lenny Perez called from his home. Roman noted that Perez made numerous calls to Bonanno's home in November and December 1986.

Perez did not respond to repeated requests for comment. On Wednesday, Tampa attorney Julianne Holt said that she had been retained by Perez to comment to the Times, but that she had decided not to involve herself in further controversy involving Bonanno.

Roman also investigated a report that Bonanno fixed a case for aman charged with possession of marijuana. Roman found the allegation baseless.

In December 1986, Roman met with prosecutors to review "the Bonanno matter." A decision was made to end the investigation into Bonanno unless "any further leads developed."

Two months later, in February 1987, detectives' interest in Bonanno was rekindled. The reason: They were upset by his rulings in a drug case.

Bonanno had forced a confidential informant in a cocaine case to reveal his identity. Detectives worried that this ruling could jeopardize other drug cases involving confidential informants.

Roman was assigned to look into the case and to re-open the earlier investigations of Bonanno.

The detective asked Bonanno to turn over more recent logs of people he had ordered released from jail. He did this to determine if Perez "is still having input to Bonanno in reference to having people ROR'd," he wrote in a report.

Bonanno balked, demanding to know why Roman wanted to see the logs, the reports say. He asked Roman if the sheriff knew of his investigation, and then called the sheriff himself. A week later, after meeting with prosecutor Hoyer, Bonanno turned his logs over to Roman.

"In reviewing the logs," Roman wrote, "it was noted that since the 1984 inquiry into Bonanno's ROR logs, the name of "Lenny' no longer appears."

In re-opening the investigation from the 1986 racketeering case involving Perez's son-in-law, Roman contacted Houston police, who had helped build the original racketeering case. Undercover Houston officers told Roman that a Tampa drug dealer once boasted that Bonanno "was in his pocket." They promised to try to recontact the dealer, but never did.

At the same time, Roman learned from another confidential informant that a woman who was arrested for prostitution had bragged that her father was good friends with Bonanno and had gotten the judge to dismiss the charge.

In June 1983, the woman's case was dismissed by Bonanno. He ruled that accepting $100 from an undercover officer and lying naked on a bed did not constitute an offer to commit prostitution.

Months after dismissing the case, Bonanno sealed the records of the woman's arrest.