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Integrity Questions Again


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  • | 6:00 p.m. September 10, 2004
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Integrity Questions Again

Will Hillsborough County Public Defender Julie Holt ever run for re-election when ethics isn't an issue?

By Francis X. Gilpin

Associate Editor

Many incumbents don't have to worry about political challenges after their second or third term in elected office. Democrat Julianne M. Holt doesn't know that luxury.

The investigation-scarred public defender of Hillsborough County wants a fourth term. For the third time since her 1992 election, however, a Republican stands in the way.

This year's challenger is William Ashley Knight, a name that echoes of Old Tampa. The 36-year-old solo-practicing attorney, a Columbia University graduate with a law degree from Stetson University, is a great-grandson of Peter O. Knight, a pioneering attorney and power broker in the Cigar City.

Belying his pedigree and Ivy League education, Will Knight worked as an assistant public defender for Holt from 1994 to 1998. He seems to have more than passing familiarity with the aura of malfeasance that has permeated Holt's nearly 12 years in the office.

"Myself and every other lawyer in that office are going to follow the rule of law. We're going to follow the rule of law on ethics also," Knight told the Tiger Bay Club of Tampa at a luncheon debate with Holt on Sept. 3. "We're going to do just what's required and allowed by the state rules. We're not going to ask any employee to do anything else."

Holt, 49, is paid $137,684 annually to oversee an office of 180 employees that she says handles about 70,000 criminal cases a year with a budget of $10 million.

Her re-election margins have been shrinking since she ousted Judge C. Luckey Jr. in the 1992 Democratic primary. She polled 62% that year. In 1996, she beat John D. Hooker in the general election with 58%. In the 2000 election, she defeated Alan Sandler with just 54%.

Her dwindling popularity might be due to the possibility that she is the Tampa Bay area's most-scrutinized elected official. Since 1995, following a series of St. Petersburg Times exposes, Holt has been the subject of two state ethics inquiries and one state grand jury probe.

The grand jury scolded Holt but cleared her of criminal wrongdoing in connection with her signing the name of another lawyer to a check she cashed from a former client. Earlier this year, the second ethics commission probe ended with the dismissal of the last charges remaining from more than a dozen filed against Holt, including accusations that she used public employees to run private errands on government time.

Oddly enough, the challenger's wife, Kathleen C. Knight, a partner at the Tampa law firm of James Hoyer Newcomer & Smiljanich PA, was part of the legal team that helped Holt beat the latest ethics charges.

Holt reminds potential voters that, for all the government sleuthing and newspaper muckraking, she has never been charged with a crime. "I was exonerated in totality in the ethics investigation," she says of the administrative proceeding. "That was after a nice, long, one-month trial, longer than any first-degree murder trial that I've ever been in."

The clients of Holt's office are those accused of a crime who cannot afford their own legal counsel. Given the tenure of the campaign so far, Holt questions Will Knight's fitness to serve in her place.

"If you listen to what Mr. Knight says, if you have a charge placed against you, you're a tainted person and you're a person that's not worthy," Holt told the Tiger Bay crowd. "Is that the type of individual you want, who day in and day out at 70,000 cases, is going to think that the people that come into the system are not worthy because they're in the system?

"Because I can tell you something, ladies and gentlemen: Number one, not only are they presumed innocent. Many of them are, in fact, innocent and not rightfully there."

Tampa attorney Herbert M. Berkowitz, a Holt supporter, kept the challenger on the defensive by asking about the meager $14,567 that he says Knight reported as last year's total income from his law practice.

Knight told Berkowitz that the 2003 income was a figure reduced by the repayment of a loan he had made to his firm. His income should be up around $120,000 in 2004, Knight predicted.

"Profit doesn't matter when you're running the public defender's office," Knight says. "Staying within budget does."

Knight recalled that the Internal Revenue Service once filed a lien against Holt, covering an alleged income-tax delinquency from 1990 when she was still in private practice. The $12,860 lien was discharged in 1994, county records show.

"I'm not worried about profit. I'm worried about doing the right thing," Knight says. "I'm worried about eliminating things like no-bid contracts. I'm going to eliminate things like asking employees to do personal tasks. I'm going to eliminate things where ethics investigations happen. None of that's going to happen on our watch because I'm not going to do those things."

Holt is known as an effective stump speaker who enjoys considerable support within the city's Democratic and Latin political establishments.

But Knight's election staff is circulating a sheet of statistics from a state personnel-tracking system that purports to show Holt's office has suffered the highest employee turnover of any public defender in five large judicial circuits in Florida.

From 1997 to present, Holt's turnover rate has been consistently in double digits, according to the state Cooperative Personnel Employment Subsystem. The lowest turnover was in 2002 at 16% and the highest was 31% in 1999.

"It's because people are unhappy there," says Knight. "These numbers don't lie."

Holt wasn't so sure. She acknowledged that Knight was presenting the statistics as he got them from the state. But she nonetheless questioned their accuracy.

Bob Dillinger, public defender for the judicial circuit covering Pasco and Pinellas counties, has informed Holt that some of the turnover rates listed for his office are incorrect, she told the Tiger Bay audience.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Holt told the luncheon, "I could stand up here and talk to you about turnover and try to educate you about turnover. But there are many more important things to talk about."

Holt says public defenders are simply under-funded. Low pay, not dissatisfaction with her, drives staff from her office, according to Holt.

"Let's be honest. Anyone can spin anything for a couple of seconds for political reasons," Holt said. "You need to understand, this office has to deal with the challenges of every state agency and that is turnover."

Holt says she instituted more training and mentoring programs for young assistants as a way to improve retention.

"Come Nov. 2, vote for the person who has the ability to identify problems and create solutions, not be critical of things we have no control over," Holt told Tiger Bay members.

Florida TaxWatch, a non-profit group that weighs in on government spending and efficiency, has awarded Holt's office productivity awards, she notes.

But Knight says staff turnover is causing a huge case backlog and denying indigents their right to a speedy trial. "It's time for a change that's going to save you money," he says. "The Constitution is going to be served better."

In her own defense, Holt also leaned on the Constitution. "I believe in our Constitution," she says. "I believe in our system and I don't believe in tainting people for political expediency."

 

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