An ethics panel says the administrative head of the county's criminal bench can't share a lease with the state attorney.
By DAVID KARP
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 13, 2001
TAMPA -- County Judge James Dominguez must step down from the criminal bench or sell his interest in land he leases with State Attorney Mark Ober, a judicial ethics advisory committee has ruled.
Ober said the judge plans to sell his interest in the land leased by six people as a fishing spot on Blue Cypress Lake in Indian River County.
Dominguez's decision comes after the judicial ethics advisory committee said in May that he must end his business relationship with Ober or recuse himself from all criminal cases brought by the State Attorney's Office.
Dominguez is the administrative head of the county criminal bench and handles thousands of misdemeanor cases each year.
The ethics committee said the judicial canons require a judge to manage his finances to avoid regular business relationships with lawyers who appear before him. In this case, those lawyers would include any assistant state attorney who works for Ober.
Dominguez, at a judges' conference in South Florida, could not be reached for comment.
The judge asked for an opinion after Ober took office this year, Ober said. Before his election, Dominguez would not rule on cases that Ober handled as a private lawyer, he said.
Ober, Dominguez and four other people purchased a 99-year lease in the fishing property for about $25,000 in the mid-1980s, Ober said. At the time, Ober was an assistant state attorney, and Dominguez was a lawyer in private practice. The two met while at South Texas College of Law in the 1970s.
They purchased the lease from the mother of a friend. They maintain an air-conditioned trailer on the small parcel and each paysabout $300 a year toward property taxes.
In recent financial disclosure forms, Dominguez put the value of his interest in the land at $10,000. Ober said he values his interest at about $9,500, although he hasn't got the property appraised.
One of the other partners is Jim Downum, who works for Ober as administrator of community and court programs.
Ober, instead of Dominguez, could have sold his interest in the property. But Ober said he uses the property much more than the judge. Dominguez hasn't visited the spot in five years and last went fishing there with Ober six years ago. Ober, an avid outdoorsman, has gone fishing there three or four times this year.
"It's an escape," Ober said.