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Accused of impropriety, Hillsborough's chief judge backs away from a case

Matthew Buendia, 27, is accused of shooting a deputy.
Published Mar. 21, 2015

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta is accused of playing a behind-the-scenes role in improperly revoking a defendant's bond, a claim that could potentially require him to testify about his actions.

The allegations involve the case of Matthew Buendia, 27, an ex-Marine accused of shooting a Hills­borough sheriff's deputy in 2011. On Friday, defense attorneys for Buendia filed a motion contending that in the days after their client's arrest, Ficarrotta, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe, the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office and Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee worked together to revoke Buendia's bond and increase the charges against him, overruling a previous judge's order and ensuring Buendia would remain in jail until trial.

The veteran judges and law enforcement officials did this in flagrant violation of the Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure, according to the motion, which asked that the case be moved out of Hillsborough County.

At a hearing Friday, it took just four seconds for the judge assigned to the case, Circuit Judge Lisa Campbell, to remove herself. She did not comment on her decision, and she didn't wait to hear prosecutors' arguments before issuing her order.

After the hearing, Hillsborough prosecutor Anthony Falcone gave a flat denial of the defense's allegations. "I reject the factual assertions in the motion," he said, adding that there was no reason to believe any of the judges or law enforcement officials involved had treated Buendia unfairly.

Regardless of whether the defense's claims are justified, they generated enough concern that on Friday afternoon, Ficarrotta sent a letter to the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court asking him to reassign the case to a different circuit. In the letter, Ficarrotta acknowledged the possibility that Buendia's defense attorneys, Mark O'Brien and Victoria Hatfield, may call him as a witness. If this happens, it will be the first time in his many years as a judge, he said.

In a phone conversation with a Times reporter, he declined to discuss the defense's claims. "As I may be a witness, it's inappropriate for me to comment about the case or the motion," he said. His request that the case be moved was done "to avoid even the appearance of impropriety."

"All we want is an opportunity to have a fair shot in this case," O'Brien said Friday. "Now I am of the belief that we will."

The suggestion of impropriety has hung over the Buendia case since Oct. 2, 2011, the Sunday he first appeared in court following his arrest.

A former Marine who was deployed three times to the Middle East, Buendia had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder nearly two years before Sept. 30, 2011, the night he got into a violent argument with his then-girlfriend, who called 911. When Deputy Lyonelle De Veaux responded to the Carrollwood apartment complex, Buendia walked up to her and shot at her nine or 10 times, putting three bullets into her left leg and shoulder.

De Veaux recovered, but when Buendia appeared in court the next Sunday and was given a $65,000 bond, the news infuriated the sheriff. Gee asked the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office to file an appeal and his spokesman, Larry McKinnon, told reporters that Buendia was "an extreme danger to the community." Although it's common to modify defendants' bail, what happened next was unorthodox. Hours after another judge set bond, Tharpe, who was not on duty that weekend or assigned to the case, called the jail and revoked the bond. There was no hearing, as would typically happen.

According to the motion Buendia's attorneys filed Friday, after Tharpe inserted himself into the case, Ficarrotta called the judge who had originally set Buendia's bond, told her what Tharpe had done, and asked if it was okay with her. She said it was.

The next day, she was given an order to sign retroactively approving Tharpe's decision. She signed it. One day after that, prosecutors increased the charges against Buendia to first-degree attempted murder of a law enforcement officer, a charge that carries a 25-year minimum mandatory sentence, and made him ineligible for bail.

The motion alleges that over the next several years, Ficarrotta, the judge in Buendia's case, repeatedly ruled against attorneys for the defense, who didn't know he had been involved in denying their client bail from the beginning.

Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.

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