Thomas E. Stringer spent more than three decades quietly building his legal career in Florida, working his way up from an assistant state attorney to appeals court judge in the Tampa Bay area. In 2007, he was inducted into his law school's hall of fame.
Then last spring, the well-respected, married judge suddenly found his face splashed beside that of a troubled exotic dancer in a kimono.
She went on TV to claim they'd been romantically involved, and that he helped her hide money from creditors, even putting a rent-controlled New York City apartment under his name for her.
Newspaper columns were written. Jokes were made. Stringer's 35-year legal career was tarnished.
"It is axiomatic that 'Judge' and 'Stripper' showing up in a headline is never a good thing, especially if you happen to be the 'Judge,'" then Tampa Tribune columnist Daniel Ruth wrote after the story broke.
Criminal charges possible
Criminal charges are possible, though the FBI declined to comment. The state agency that oversees judges dropped misconduct charges after Stringer, who stepped down in February and draws monthly retirement benefits of $8,069, agreed never to be a judge again.
To his friends and the legal community, the speed of Stringer's fall was shocking. Many are reserving judgment, while others feel their trust in him was misplaced.
Delano Stewart, a Tampa attorney who calls himself a former friend of Stringer, said Stringer's conduct "disrespects all of what I have worked for all of my life."
"I am so deeply angry with him," Stewart said.
Stringer, who has said he had a friendship and business relationship with stripper Christy Yamanaka, declined to comment for this story. His attorney did not return repeated messages left at his office.
Yamanaka also declined to comment.
Stringer, 64, graduated from Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport in the 1970s. He was the first black graduate from his law school. He became an assistant state attorney and later a circuit judge in Tampa's Hillsborough County. There, in the family law division, he built a reputation as a judge who insisted that all sides be heard.
"I can tell you, the family lawyers idolized Tom Stringer," said Chief Judge Stevan T. Northcutt of Florida's 2nd District Court of Appeal.
In 1999, Stringer was appointed to that court, where judges make $153,140 a year.
Fast forward to March 2008. Yamanaka, 48, showed up on a local TV station, dressed in a yellow kimono with burnt orange flowers, her long, dark hair flowing.
Went public when in debt
She said she met the judge at an Italian restaurant in 1995, when she was a stripper in Tampa. Five years later, she was deep in debt and turned to him for advice. Later, she said she went public after Stringer refused to repay money he owed her.
Yamanaka had tried to file for bankruptcy in Nevada in 2000 and court documents show she owed American Express more than $78,000, racked up from stays at expensive hotels in Las Vegas and airline tickets. She owed Bank of America another $236,000. She listed her occupation as housewife and said she had just $450 in assets — family pictures, clothes and a wedding ring — and no income. The bankruptcy court denied her request, meaning she would have to repay the debts.
Allegations that judge helped hide assets
Yamanaka, who is divorced, said the judge helped by allowing her to deposit tens of thousands of dollars she made from stripping in Las Vegas and New York into his accounts so creditors wouldn't know she had an income.
"Judge suggests to me to put the money into his account," Yamanaka told WFLA-TV in Tampa. "Due to his position nobody bothered him so it would be safe."
Stringer told reporters he let her use his accounts because she had terrible credit but denied helping her hide money.
The Judicial Qualifications Commission, which oversees judges in Florida, investigated and found probable cause to believe Stringer had opened bank accounts in his name and let her use them from 2003 to 2007 to hide assets. The commission's inquiry does not say how much money might have passed through the accounts.
Gifts, trips, loans among allegations
The allegations listed by the commission only get worse: Stringer listed himself as the sole owner of a home in Hawaii for her. He accepted a trip from her to Las Vegas, a gift he did not disclose though judicial canons require reporting all gifts over $100. He went to New York to sign a lease on an apartment for her, putting it under his name, and allowed her to treat him to a stay at The Waldorf-Astoria hotel. He asked her to buy two Rolex watches, one for him and one for his wife. He borrowed $50,000 from her in a no-interest loan that he failed to repay. None of the transactions was included on the financial disclosure report required of judges.
The alleged acts "constitute conduct unbecoming a member of the judiciary," the commission concluded.
When the commission charged Stringer with ethical violations in January, his lawyer called it "tragic."
"The time comes when the process demands that it be proven before someone's career is permanently stained or in some fashion affected by this," attorney J. David Bogenschutz said.
Celene Humphries, a former staff attorney at the appeals court where Stringer was a judge, said she can imagine him trying to help someone, without thinking of the personal cost.
"Everybody is subject to lapses of judgment," she said. "It's just that not everybody gets punished as severely as he did."