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Snooty robes in Pinellas tugged by a bit of scandal

A judge arrested on criminal charges.

Hi-jinks with the courthouse payroll.

A chief judge trying to keep it all a secret from the taxpayers.

Are we talking about more courthouse scandal in back-room, smoke-filled Tampa?

Nope. That's the scene these days in holier-than-thou Pinellas County, where the judges and lawyers have always sniffed at their neighbors to the east.

The latest news from Pinellas is about Circuit Judge Charles W. Cope, who was arrested back in April in Carmel, Calif., while attending a judicial conference. This is just coming to light, because, after all, why should it be any of the business of the citizens that a judge got arrested?

The alleged circumstances are slightly mysterious. A mother and daughter said that Cope tried to barge into their hotel room in the middle of the night. Apparently the judge had met the women the previous day. After the attempted entry they called police, who arrested Cope a block away from the scene. It was 12:30 a.m.

Cope says they have the wrong guy. Innocent until proven guilty, of course. Let's hope it works out for him.

It worked out for him on his last arrest. In 1997, charges of drunken driving against Cope were dropped after a judge threw out the evidence. Cope had been arrested while attending a judicial conference in Naples. (Judicial conferences seem to be bad luck for him.)

The thing is, Cope did discuss his California arrest with the chief circuit judge at the time, Susan Schaeffer.

Schaeffer is a great judge. She is universally respected. In lots of people's opinion, she should have been promoted to the Florida Supreme Court.

But here she kept quiet. When she turned over the reins to the next chief judge, David Demers, she told him only of an unspecified "problem" with Cope.

"Judge Schaeffer said she was still handling that problem and she didn't offer details," Demers told a reporter. "There was no need for me to know what the problem was. She didn't get into it. And I didn't ask."

The uncurious Demers probably is no good at Twenty Questions, either.

By comparison, the former longtime chief judge in Tampa, F. Dennis Alvarez, had to deal with scandal too. One judge had an affair with a bailiff. One was accused of sexual harassment. One was caught puttering around in another judge's office. There's more.

You know what Alvarez did, for which he was roundly criticized? He tried to keep it "in-house." A grand jury faulted him for his handling of things. (It should be pointed out that he never had to cover up any actual arrests.)

Now, on to Bonnie Newton.

Bonnie Newton is a former Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge. She treated some people like dirt. She handed down an illegal jail sentence. She was high-handed. She got voted out of office in 1998, after the state Judicial Qualifications Commission filed charges against her. Had she not been fired by the voters, she might have been removed anyway.

Last month, we learned (we're always "learning" in Pinellas) that Schaeffer and Demers had put Newton back on the courthouse payroll _ just for three weeks _ so she would qualify for a pension of about $18,000 a year.

The usually open Schaeffer refused any public comment. Demers offered: "I certainly don't view this as favoritism."

It is encouraging to see Pinellas County's judges competing with Hillsborough's in this arena. Those lawyers in Tampa who specialize in representing judges in trouble soon may have to open branch offices in Largo. In the meantime, I sincerely hope that people are sitting around in coffee shops in West Tampa, shaking their heads at the headlines and saying, "What do you expect from Pinellas County?"

_ You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxlersptimes.com.

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