The Wesley Chapel man who received a rare presidential pardon this week called his earlier felony a "youthful indiscretion" that happened after he got mixed up in the wrong crowd.
He was 31 and had just started a small business three years earlier. His daughter was nearly 5. He said he made a dumb decision that he still regrets.
"A friend of a friend told me how I could make a lot of money if I wanted to help out in a drug operation with some marijuana," he said. "I said, 'Sure, for a bunch of money I'll give it a shot.' "
Dennis Bulin, the owner of a nationally recognized scuba equipment company based in Zephyrhills, was not eager to talk about the offense. He refused several interview requests from the Times and other media outlets. But he agreed to tell his story to Todd Schnitt, a conservative radio host on WFLA-AM 970. The two men have known each other since 1996. Their interview ran on the air Tuesday afternoon.
Bulin, 61, described a 1982 operation in which he was hired to help unload a plane filled with more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana as it landed in Alabama from Colombia. Informants in the operation tipped off federal authorities, who were on the scene when the plane landed.
Several people were arrested, though Bulin said he managed to escape and go back to Florida.
"Needless to say it scared the living daylights out of me," he told Schnitt. "I just decided this is not for me. I certainly got away from those people and that crowd."
Nearly five years later — three weeks before the statute of limitations would expire — he was arrested on a charge of conspiracy to distribute drugs. Shortly afterward, in March 1987, he was sentenced to five years of probation and had to pay a $20,000 fine.
After the sentence, his life became much more public. He built Zeagle Systems Inc. into a multi-million dollar company with products sold all over the world. He is the owner of several patents, and divers credit the company with introducing innovative products such as a vest with a rip cord that allows a diver to surface quickly in an emergency.
After his probation ended, he applied to the Florida Parole Commission to have his civil rights restored. His clemency was approved by Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Florida Cabinet in October 1992. But his rights would still be restricted if he ever moved from Florida, and he still couldn't own a gun.
Late in the Clinton administration, he applied for a presidential pardon. In the radio interview he described a 15-20 page application asking dozens of personal questions and requesting several references.
Then he waited. Bulin said he got a call from the federal Pardon Attorney's office about two years ago, and the lawyer asked a few basic questions. On Monday his cell phone rang with a Washington, D.C., number. He couldn't take the call because he was at a physical therapy appointment.
He went back to his office and got the good news.
"I had to pick myself up off the floor," he said. "I about fell out of my chair. It was the last thing on my mind."
Bulin is one of 22 people pardoned during President Barack Obama's time in office. That's out of 4,625 applications.
"I felt like I was worthy of (a pardon)," he told Schnitt. "I was a good person. I've been a good boy for many, many years."
He added: "It kind of solidifies everything I've been doing for the last 30 years to get my life back in order."
Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.