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Claim looms in Thornton case

Fired or retired?

It might be a moot question to some people, but it could make a whopping difference to Thomas Thornton.

In 1986, eight years before Thornton was convicted of fondling seven children while taking school portraits, someone accused him of sexual harassment at the Tampa insurance adjusting firm where he had worked for 23 years.

That accusation wasn't mentioned at his trial, but it looms large in the presentencing report prepared to help a judge decide Thornton's punishment. A probation officer who interviewed Thornton in jail quoted him as saying that he was fired because of the harassment.

Thornton was considered credible when he appeared to be incriminating himself. But when he said he was misquoted, officials said he was probably lying now.

An Oct. 13 Times article examined Thornton's conviction for fondling five children and touching two improperly. The Times' research did not establish whether Thornton was guilty, but did point to shortcomings in the investigation and mistakes of Thornton's defense attorney that may have swayed the jury.

A report of an earlier sexual transgression could not only push Thornton's sentence up within sentencing guidelines but undermine his claim of innocence, making it harder to obtain the new trial he seeks.

And the source of the information _ Thornton himself _ says he was misquoted.

There was indeed a complaint, Thornton said, but the woman he supposedly harassed dismissed it, he said.

He accidentally collided with a clerk in a doorway, Thornton said, and that's all. Another woman, secretly monitoring serious harassment by another manager, heard them joking about the collision and included him in one of her reports to the home office in Atlanta, he said.

The clerk laughed it off, he said; that's why he volunteered the information to the parole officer.

When he retired a few months later, it was entirely by choice, said Thornton, who is 58. His list of reasons included _ but was not topped by _ aggravation caused by the unfounded complaint, he said.

He and his wife, Barbara, the principal of Largo High School, had been discussing his retiring for more than a year, he said. His mother had recently died, leaving him busy managing an estate that gave him some financial independence.

"I just said the hell with it and got out," he said. He took seasonal jobs as an H&R Block tax preparer and a school portrait photographer.

Fired or retired?

William Burgan, the parole officer who wrote the pre-sentence investigation, was asked Friday to address the difference between the report's statement that Thornton was fired and Thornton's later assertion that he just left.

At first, Burgan said there really wasn't a one. "We're dealing with semantics here," Burgan said. "What's the big difference?"

Because employees in trouble are often presented with a quit-or-be-fired ultimatum, he said, "I don't see there's any difference between resigning and termination."

Besides, he remembers clearly Thornton saying he was fired, said Burgan, a veteran parole officer who specializes in sex offenders and high-profile cases. "He pretty much volunteered that it was because of a sex harassment complaint."

Burgan didn't ask Thornton any questions about the complaint: "I didn't go into it." When he tried to get more information from the firm, Crawford and Company, he had no luck. The company discards personnel records after seven years and no longer has Thornton's file.

The Times asked Ike Brown, the chief parole officer for Pasco and Pinellas counties, about the case. Brown said there was a significant difference between being fired and quitting in the context of a pre-sentence investigation, or PSI.

"He's caused some serious questions as to the validity of the PSI," Brown said of Burgan's no-difference comment.

Several hours later, though, in a conference call with Brown, Burgan said that the reporter must have misunderstood him. There's a difference between being fired and leaving, he said _ but Thornton himself said he was fired.

Brown said he stood by his officer but would review Burgan's notes.

When it comes down to credibility, though, Brown said, would you trust the convicted child molester or the sworn law officer, an above-average employee with an excellent work record?

"Consider the validity of the source," Brown said. Maybe Thornton had second thoughts.

"Who would ever say something that negative about themselves and have it be incorrect?" said Brown. Besides, if there is incorrect information in the report, it's up to Thornton's lawyer to call attention to it, he said.

Thornton's lawyer, Barry Cohen, said he was going to clear up the situation by finding the woman Thornton supposedly harassed and obtaining a statement from her. But hopefully the judge will never hear it, he said.

That's because Cohen hopes to get Thornton a new trial first, and win it. "I'm not really going to concern myself with that till we get to sentencing," he said. "If we get to sentencing."