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Illegal telephone tape entangles prosecutors

The state agent and prosecutor knew all about Peter Allen Bonk's wide-ranging burglary ring. Now their questions were about Bonk's wife, a prosecutor herself in Pinellas County.

How much did she know about his criminal activities?

Very little, Bonk said.

You're lying, countered the agent, who pulled out a tape of telephone conversations that Bonk had secretly recorded at his home. Maybe this will refresh your memory, the agent said, pressing play.

At that moment _ and other times they played the tape _ the agent and the prosecutor may have violated state law.

Without legal authorization, it's illegal to secretly tape telephone calls in Florida.

Moreover, it's illegal to disseminate the contents of tapes known to be recorded illegally. That's where the agent and prosecutor may have misstepped.

The prosecution team denies any wrongdoing. But law officers and prosecutors have to play by the same rules as everyone else, said defense attorney Steve Romine, who represents Cathy Harrison, Bonk's now ex-wife.

"The agent and the prosecutor either didn't know the law, didn't understand it or deliberately broke it," Romine said.

The tale begins in the late 1990s, when Peter Bonk ran a fledgling pizza company while also leading a burglary ring that targeted hotels and convenience stores in Central Florida.

When his wife, Harrison, figured out what was going on, she tried to get rid of the stolen items in their home. Bonk threatened her into bringing them back, according to court records. Eventually, she moved out for several months.

Harrison, who had just gone to work for the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, returned home in April 2000 after Bonk promised to stop stealing.

About 10 days later, the police burst through the front door of their Temple Terrace home. During the raid, they found the tapes of conversations that prosecutors would later say indicated Harrison knew about the thefts and had used items she knew were stolen. Harrison lost her job at the State Attorney's Office. She also filed for divorce.

Several months after the raid, Troy Walker, of the FDLE, went to Assistant Statewide Prosecutor Lisa McLean and said they had probable cause to charge Bonk with illegally taping the conversations.

McLean, a longtime prosecutor and public defender in Hillsborough, decided not to file charges. Instead, she chose to use the tape to go after Harrison.

Bonk was facing charges of racketeering, grand theft and dealing in stolen property. The two racketeering charges came with sentences of up to 30 years each. But Walker and McLean offered Bonk five years probation in return for his cooperation.

At first, Bonk said his wife didn't know much about his illegal activities since he tried to keep them secret, court records show. Walker told Bonk he didn't believe him.

Walker said he would give Bonk another chance. With McLean in the room, Walker played excerpts from the tape that they said showed his wife knew more about the criminal activity than he was saying. Bonk then changed his story and said his wife had used some of the stolen items, court records show.

Because they were illegally recorded, the tapes are not part of the public record in the case, which means the Times could not review them.

On Feb. 7, Harrison was charged with grand theft.

Romine, Harrison's attorney, said he told McLean several times that she should not have played the tape for Bonk and several other witnesses. He said she didn't seem to care.

At that point, the gloves came off.

Romine questioned Walker under oath in May. The agent said he had not researched the statutes before playing the tape for Peter Bonk and the others. In retrospect, Walker said, he realized that disclosing the contents of illegally recorded tapes is a violation of the law.

But neither he nor McLean had any "malicious intent," he said.

"I think we were both extremely surprised," Walker told Romine.

Romine demanded the case be dismissed. He questioned how two educated law officers could know that Bonk's secret taping broke the law but not that disseminating those conversations also broke the law.

Chief Assistant Statewide Prosecutor Joe Larrinaga said the intent of the law was to keep people from benefiting from recording other people, not to hinder police investigations.

"The Legislature never contemplated this scenario," Larrinaga said.

Romine disagreed. The law is "very explicit" and defines the steps police need to follow, he said.

"You don't have to guess at the legislative intent when the statute is clearly written," he said. "Simply put, they didn't follow the law."

The case was headed for a hearing earlier this month, but the showdown never materialized.

Instead, Larrinaga dropped the charge against Harrison. He said his decision had nothing to do with the allegations surrounding the tape.

He said he had learned his main witness, Peter Bonk, had made on-the-record statements directly contradicting what he told McLean and Walker.

"His credibility was shot at that point," Larrinaga said.