The campaign issue surrounding outgoing Monroe County State Attorney Dennis Ward's failure to keep continuing education requirements up to date, which resulted in his brief "delinquency" status in 2009, may finally be put to bed barring any appeals. Circuit Judge Mark Jones shot down defense attorney Roberta Fine's challenging Ward's authority to prosecute cases over five weeks in 2009, when, his political opponents alleged during the primary race, he was not allowed to practice law.
Fine's motion asked Jones to withdraw a plea by Cornelius Jones, who was prosecuted during that time. A June 30, 2009, letter from the state bar notified Ward he was "administratively delinquent" on his continued education requirements.
Ward was not punished and the issue was resolved within a month.
Jones was sentenced to 10 years in prison followed by 12 years' probation in February 2012 in the 2009 beating of former City Commission candidate and Old Town resident Tom Milone.
"Although Mr. Ward was considered delinquent by the Bar, he was not suspended from the practice of law nor was he the recipient of any disciplinary action from the Bar. During the period ... Mr. Ward continued to function in an administrative capacity and did not consider himself to be engaged in the practice of law," Jones wrote in his Oct. 29 ruling.
Jones noted that then-Chief Assistant State Attorney Don Barrett prosecuted the case and that Ward's delinquent status had no bearing on Barrett's authority to prosecute cases under him. Jones cited the Florida Constitution: "Only the governor pursuant to Article IV, Section 7 of the Florida Constitution, not the Florida Bar, had the authority to suspend Mr. Ward from office and the Governor took no such action," Jones wrote. "Accordingly, the court finds that during the period of delinquency, Mr. Ward retained the authority to manage and operate the State Attorney's Office and his assistants had the power and authority to practice law and carry out all of the functions connected with prosecuting cases."
The issue became the central focus in a bitter race for state attorney.
Fine was out of her office Friday and could not be reached for comment.
"It's an unfortunate situation that Roberta Fine used her clients to enhance Catherine Vogel's chances of being elected state attorney by making these allegations," Ward said. "The bottom line is that even if they won the motion, this thug would still spend 12 years in prison. It was a vicious crime committed on an elderly man and I think it was irresponsible for Ms. Fine to file this thing, but she made it an issue during the campaign and she had to follow through with it."
Ward said he didn't know if Fine would appeal Jones' order.
Assistant State Attorney Val Winter, who argued the matter before Jones, declined to comment.