Gainesville prosecutor to investigate Shirk's office

Gov. appoints 8th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Bill Cervone special prosecutor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Late Thursday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott  appointed the state attorney for the Gainesville area as special prosecutor to investigate allegations of improprieties and the deletion of public records in the office of Public Defender Matt Shirk.

In the order appointing Bill Cervone of the 8th Judicial Circuit, Scott tasked him with "potential prosecution and all matters related to allegations of public records laws violations and any related misconduct."

DOCUMENT: Scott's order on special prosecutor

Cervone is the chief prosecutor in the 8th Judicial Circuit, which covers Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Levy, Gilchrist and Union Counties.  His staff was instructed to immediately begin an investigation in Jacksonville. 

The assignment lasts for one year, but Cervone (pictured, right) told Channel 4 he hopes the investigation will only take 60 to 90 days.

He said his office is starting from scratch and must interview everyone involved, and most of the employees of the office.

"I promise you I will be personally involved," Cervone said.

Cervone has handled a special case in Jacksonville before. In 2006, then-Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him to look into the Johnnie Mae Chappell case. She was was the African-American woman killed in the 1960s and one  man served only three years for manslaughter. Cervone was looking to see if there was more evidence to reopen the case and charge three others, but there was not enough evidence to prosecute.

Neither Shirk nor his spokesman have been available for comment since the Florida Times-Union published a story Sunday about a series of incidents that included Shirk hiring and firing three women.

The newspaper reported that two public defender investigators resigned over a series of incidents that included Shirk's hiring of the women -- two of which were formerly employees of the Whisky River nightclub -- that bypassed normal hiring practices.  One of those investigators said Shirk's wife, Michelle Shirk, confronted one woman and told her she was fired.

Michelle Shirk is not an employee of the public defender's office, but did at one time have a security badge to access the office.  Additional investigation found that records of office access using security badges was deleted by the public defenders office, but backup copies were obtained from the city through in a public records request.

Records show that Kayle Chester and Kristal Coggins, former employees at Whisky River, were fired June 1 and 7, then a third woman, Tiffany Ice, was fired on June 25.

Since the story broke, media inquiries about the women's hiring and firing have flooded the public defender's office with public records requests.  On Wednesday, the law firm Rogers Towers was hired to investigate those requests.

State Sen. Rob Bradley, R-District 7, said Thursday he is friends with Shirk and is also a lawyer who wants the legal system to function properly.

"Your first response when you see what we've all seen in the news is, your heart goes out to a friend," Bradley said.

Beyond the personal feelings he has for Matt and Michelle Shirk, Bradley is a former prosecutor and is also on the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee. He said he supports State Attorney Angela Corey's office requesting recusal from any investigation of Shirk.

"The fact of the matter is we have an office to run," Bradley said. "That office represents many defendants who have been arrested. Often it's a life or death situation."

While the accusations against Shirk could be life or death for his political career, politicians like Bradley and Duval Democratic Chairman Neil Henrichsen say this is more important than party affiliation.

"It's not a matter of Republican or Democrat, it's a matter of good government and people in office being accountable to taxpayers," Henrichsen said.

"And that is way, way beyond Republican and Democrat," Bradley said. "That is a fundamental Constitutional right."