Friday, November 25, 2005

Jeb Bush selects Pinellas judges: merit or Republican politics?
by Wes Fager

Judges are elected in Florida. But sometimes it is necessary for the governor to appoint a judge as when there has been a death or when a judge has to be released for malfeasance. To assist the governor in his selection, Florida has what is called a Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC). In the event it is necessary for the governor to appoint a judge, the JNC screens applicants and submits a list of three to six best qualified finalists to the governor. The governor selects a judge from that list. For 30 years the JNC was as independent as reasonable and possible from the executive office of the Governor of Florida. But that all changed when Jeb Bush became governor. [See Jeb Bush ends 30 years of separation of the judicial from the executive branch by Wes Fager]

A 1999 eMail to Jeb Bush from Frank Jimenez, the governor's assistant general counsel, outlined a proposed plan to recruit judges who are ideologically compatible with Bush. "We need to be careful, because we don't want create a 'kingmaker' perception," wrote Jimenez. Jimenez noted that Bush had asked his staff to "organize attorney friends throughout the state to help recruit ideologically compatible, desirable candidates" to apply to the JNCs." St. Petersburg attorney (now mayor) Rick Baker was specifically mentioned as an attorney friend. Back when he was just an attorney Rick Baker had been the local campaign chairman for both Gov. Jeb Bush and President George W. Bush. The governor made a one-line response to Jimenez's eMail, "Come by and visit with me on this." [SPT 10-1-1999]

The St. Petersburg Times reported on Oct 4, 2005 that Governor Bush had selected three new judges for Pinellas County courts. They are George Jirotka of Belleair Shore, John Carassas of Palm Harbor and Edwin Jagger of Seminole. The question is were they selected for their abilities or because they are ideologically compatible to Jeb Bush?

George Jirotka. August 8, 2000 was an important day for Straight[1] cofounder Betty Sembler. It was her 70th birthday and Governor Jeb Bush had just declared it Betty Sembler Day in all of Florida for her work at Straight. The party was at Gratzzi's Italian Restaurant in BayWalk the multi-million dollar shopping complex her husband Ambassador Melvin Sembler, AO had built in St. Petersburg, Florida. Instead of gifts Betty had asked everyone to contribute to the Straight Foundation, Inc. which now calls itself DFAF. Almost everybody was there. Even Mayor Rick Baker, who was at another nearby luncheon, managed to stop in to say hello. Another distinguished guest was Sixth Circuit Judge Irene Sullivan who could only stay for salad.

Now this story is not about Mayor Baker, Judge Sullivan or Betty Sembler. It is about Governor Bush's appointments of judges to Pinellas courts in October 2005. Nevertheless it is worth mentioning Judge Sullivan and her husband Donald before we get to the latest judge appointments. In 1989 an inspection team for the Florida Dept. of Health out of Tallahassee was in St. Petersburg, Florida to look at Straight. The mission--to close Straight for repeated violations. But according to a later IG report, the head of the inspection team received a telephone call form her boss and was told give Straight a license or you will be fired on the spot! The IG report concluded that pressure to the Secretary of Health's office was apparently coming from Mel Sembler and from certain state senators.

After the incident, Wesley Pennington, the president of Straight, ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the state assembly, and Donald Sullivan, MD resigned his post as secretary of Straight Foundation to run successfully as a Republican for state senator. Ultimately he joined the state senate's Children and Families Committee which oversees Florida's Office of Children and Families--the very same office that had been prepared to deny Straight's license in 1989. He seemed to be in a position to act upon any investigation of Mel Sembler's prior actions.

St. Pete Times writer Stephen Nohlgren once wrote, "Florida goes to great lengths to keep judicial campaigns above the political fray. Elections are nonpartisan. Candidates can't discuss political issues. And in most counties, political parties and their executives were forbidden by state law to endorse judicial candidates." [SPT 6-10-98] But that was about to change. Early in 1998 Paul Bedinghaus, chairman of the Pinellas County Republican Party, initiated a lawsuit against the state of Florida, which would allow political parties to endorse judicial candidates. He and the party's attorney George Jirotka contended that the ban violated the party's First Amendment rights to free speech. In March 1998 Paul Bedinghaus flatly stated, "the Pinellas Republican Executive Committee has no plans to endorse judicial candidates if the lawsuit is successful. I am primarily motivated by trying to get out from under this ridiculous infringement of our rights." [SPT 3-10-98] On June 10, 1998 Sixth Circuit Judge Catherine Harlan agreed with Bedinghaus and Jirotka when she declared that the "the ban on judicial endorsements is an unconstitutional restriction of free speech."

Back in March Paul Bedinghaus had said this was a matter of principle that "the Pinellas Republican Executive Committee has no plans to endorse judicial candidates if the lawsuit is successful." Look at the newspaper report on the left. Six months after his statement the Republican party was already endorsing judicial candidates and one of them was Donald Sullivan's wife Irene. And while the Republican Party could by then promote judicial candidates, the canons of judicial ethics still prohibited a judicial candidate from seeking or touting a political endorsement or party affiliation.

In 1997 then attorney Irene Sullivan lobbied her husband's legislative colleagues to oppose a bill that would have allowed adult children of parents killed by medical malpractice to sue doctors for pain and suffering. Former state senator Don Sullivan is a noted surgeon. The bill was successfully blocked. Of the flier The St. Petersburg Times editorialized, "Perhaps Sullivan and Brown, if elected to the bench, will carry out their duties in an entirely independent and impartial manner. However, they are now officially beholden to the Republican Party, and that leaves the indelible perception of conflict of interest." On September 8, 2000 Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer had been the guest speaker at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club when she acknowledged that there were problems with the 6th Circuit. One problem she noted was that some judges had run openly on the Republican Party ticket, though no Democrats had.

[As a sidebar, it should be noted that Straight people have been very generous to Judge Sullivan's campaign. According to the Florida Department of State, Division of Elections Irene Sullivan received $1,000 from Mel and Betty Sembler in four separate $250 donations between 1997 and 1998. Former Straight Foundation President Walter Loebenberg donated $500 to Ms. Sullivan's campaign in 1998 and $250 in 1997. Former Straight board members or advisory board members attorneys Guy Perenich and Myron Mensch, Dr. Bruce Epstein and wife Amy, and Mel Gross and Raymond Bourgholtzer threw in $650 combined. DFAF Advisory Board member Susan Latvala and her husband state senator Jack Latvala donated $550 between 1997 and 1998.]

In 2000 the Pinellas County Republican Party called on George Jirotka's knowledge of Florida's Constitutional once again. By then it was legal for a local political party to endorse candidates in primary elections, but if the party used that right, the state would withhold the party's share of filing fees which had been collected from local candidates for office. Mr. Jirotka, representing the Republican Party, sued the state claiming that part of the law was unconstitutional too. This time is was the Sixth Circuit's infamous judge Charles W. Cope who agreed with him. On April 26, 2000 Judge Cope ruled that the financial penalties are unconstitutional. [In 2004 Bush filled Judge Cope's vacancy with Pinellas County Judge Amy Williams. Judge Williams is a Democrat. In fact, look back at the flier above. Amy Williams beat the Republican Party endorsed George Brown for her county judgeship.]

George Jirotka is a politician, himself. He used to be the mayor of Belleair Shore. He had three commissioners that he frequently locked horns with. But he had a plan. He persuaded three friends to run against the three incumbents. Since there hadn't been an election in Belleaire for years, the three incumbents didn't bother to file qualifying papers. After the qualifying period had ended Jirotka notified the three commissioners that they were out and that his three friends were in. The three commissioners wouldn't budge. They took a vote, ousted their boss, and elected one of themselves to be mayor.

In 2000 Governor Jeb Bush appointed Susan Bedinghaus, an assistant state attorney who had been out of law school just four years, to the Judicial Nomination Committee. She was so desirous to see that appointed justices would be selected for their expertise, that she wrote in her application for the commission that she was "committed to selecting persons who would best represent Governor Bush's ideals and principles." Her husband was Pinellas County Republican Party chairman Paul Bedinghaus. By 2003 Susan Bedinghaus was chairman of the 6th Circuit JNC!

George Jirotka was not only a legal adviser to the Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee. In 2004 he was also a regional chairman of President Bush's Pinellas / Pasco Counties' legal team. Governor Jeb Bush appointed him to serve on the JNC where he quickly became chairman. He was no longer on the JNC when the commission nominated him to Bush for a judgeship. George Jirotka is one of the new Bush appointments for the troubled Sixth Circuit. George Jirotka, 48, has been with Fowler White Boggs Banker in Tampa since 1986. He is a graduate of Columbia University. He has a master's in business administration from the University of Chicago and a law degree from the University of Texas.

John Carassas is another Pinellas County Republican politician/attorney. He is a former Clearwater Commissioners who ran successfully for Belleair's delegate to Florida's House of Representatives. [he ran against Tony DiMatteo who became the new chairman of the Pinellas County Republican executive committee in 2004.] While a Representative Mr. Carassas was lobbied by Travis Moore of Largo, representing the Specialty Agents Association of Florida, who persuaded him to propose a bill to add $20 to every insurance policy in Florida. The fee would raise at least $134-million a year. But, get this, the state wouldn't get it--insurance agents would.

After serving three years in the House, Carassas resigned to head the Tampa office of Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist. You might recall earlier this year when one of Crist's Assistant AGs was ripped off while he was being entertained by two Tampa call girls. [See Oakton Institute to Florida's Office of the Attorney General: leave our whores in Pinellas County alone.)

By the time Carassas resigned from the House, Donald Sullivan had been termed out of the Senate. So he, Sullivan, ran for and won Carassas' seat. Bush selected John Carassas, 39, to fill a new county court judgeship created by the Legislature last spring. He is a graduate of the University of South Florida and the Stetson University College of Law.

Edwin Bryant Jagger is the third new judge in Pinellas. Edwin Jagger has been an attorney with Battaglia, Ross, Dicus and Wein since 1990. He is now a partner. According to Fintan Dunne and the Democratic Underground , "Edwin Jagger started in law as Tony Battlagia's personal law clerk." Edwin's father Robert Jagger was the Public Defender for the county for 25 years. Robert Jagger is also with Battaglia. Anthony Battaglia was chairman of the Judicial Nominating Commission in 1988 and 1989. The year before, in 1987, attorney Walter A. Fullerton, III, a partner in Battaglia's law firm, and a former assistant states attorney, was appointed as a Pinellas County judge. In September 1992 Michael L. Hastings, a shareholder with Battaglia's law firm, was named to the Judicial Nominating Commission. In 1993, Howard P. Ross of Battaglia, Ross, Dicus, and Wein was appointed chairman of the civil trial certification committee of the Florida Bar. From his web-page biography Mr. Ross states that he is "available to serve as a voluntary Trial Resolution Judge" in Florida. Mr. Ross had once proposed to the St. Petersburg City Council the construction of the "Ambassador Pavilion", a monument in stone to immortalize Melvin Sembler and Joseph Zappala!(7) In 1993 Battaglia became the Pinellas-Pasco representative on the Florida Bar Board of Governors.

Mr. Jagger will fill the vacancy created by the death County Judge William Blackwood. He is a graduate of Western Carolina University, Stetson University, College of Law, and the University of Miami, School of Law. Mr. Jagger is married to the former Melissa Bianca Passafiume, daughter of Kathryn Passafiume of St. Petersburg and the late Salvatore Passafiume. Mel Sembler has neighbor named Edwin Jagger who is captain of the Treasurer Island Tennis Team. It is not known whether the two are the same.
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In Jan. 2005 Gov. Jeb Bush appointed veteran prosecutor Joe Bulone as a Sixth Circuit judge to fill the vacancy left by retired Chief Judge Susan F. Schaeffer.

Related articles:

Notes:

[1] From 1976 to 1993 Straight, Inc. was the biggest juvenile drug rehabilitation chain in the world. It was also one of the most destructive. It was founded by Ambassador Melvin Sembler, a long-time Republican fund raiser, and his wife Betty.

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