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Former Florida Judge Profiting from Probation Classes that State Offers for Free

Utilizing the connections he made as a judge in Florida’s Hillsborough County over a 19-year period, Robert Bonanno is building a business that offers classes to people on probation. What he provides for a fee is the same thing the state supplies at no charge, but with the added incentive of reduced community service hours.

Between July 2009 and April 2010, 166 probationers in Hillsborough County paid $65 each to attend a four-hour class at Bonanno’s Probation & Violation Center. In return, Circuit Judges Manuel Lopez, Daniel Perry and Wayne Timmerman cut some of those probationers’ court-ordered community service hours.

While the three judges are supportive of Bonanno’s program, others are not. “I think that they’re doing something that the Department of Corrections is supposed to do themselves,” said Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarotta.

In April 2010, the Florida Department of Corrections held 15 scheduled events in Hillsborough County that included tips for succeeding on probation and information about using public transportation, setting life goals and obtaining job training. Basically, those are the same types of things offered in Bonanno’s classes.

Nonetheless, Bonanno envisions his business going statewide, saying it is more effective. Probation officers “can’t spend four hours with each client they have,” he stated. “They just don’t have the time to do it. Even if they did, I don’t think the DOC will ever be able to get the same level of trust.”

When Bonanno left the bench in 2001, it was under a cloud of suspicion. His career as a judge began to unravel after a bailiff found him in the empty, darkened office of another Circuit Court judge. A grand jury said his explanation for being there ruined his credibility. Bonanno resigned to avoid questions at a state House impeachment hearing concerning an alleged courthouse affair, the sealing of cases and the purchase of a $450,000 model home. Since his resignation he has worked as a private lawyer and certified mediator.

At least one probationer, Kaitlynn Jackson, liked Bonanno’s program, which she said covered material her probation officer had already informed her about. “I liked it,” she said. “I mean it was boring. [But] I got rid of 50 hours [of community service].” That credit, of one-third of her community service for attending Bonanno’s paid class, is not offered to probationers attending the free classes provided by the state.

The Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee was asked to issue an opinion on Bonanno’s program, and decided on April 19, 2010 that the practice posed no ethical problems. “A judge may ethically allow a probationer to complete a course sponsored by a private, for-profit organization, in exchange for waiving all or part of any community service ordered as part of the probationer’s sentence,” the Committee held.

That doesn’t mean that all judges will now jump on Bonanno’s for-profit bandwagon, though. “A majority of judges are uncomfortable with Bonanno,” remarked Judge Lopez. Circuit Judge Gregory Holder also expressed reservations. “It’s not ethics, it’s not morals,” he noted. “I’m just not going to allow people to basically buy off community service in a money-making scheme for anyone.”

Sources: St. Petersburg Times, Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Opinion No. 2010-10,

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