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Federal prosecutor from Tampa: Public corruption charge coming

ORLANDO — During a public interview Wednesday for his office's top job, a high-ranking federal prosecutor from Tampa said he is close to charging a public official with public corruption.

The person has agreed to plead guilty, said Robert O'Neill, chief of the criminal division for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa.

He did not name the public official. He noted that the case resulted from allegations he learned about in the newspaper.

O'Neill disclosed his plan to a federal judicial nominating commission that interviewed candidates Wednesday for the U.S. Attorney's position in the Middle District of Florida. The commission selected O'Neill as one of three finalists.

His cryptic remarks about the forthcoming charge came amid a discussion of the role of the U.S. Attorney's Office. O'Neill said he thought prosecution of public corruption should be a priority.

"Obviously, I can't say a person's name until it's been filed," O'Neill told the St. Petersburg Times Wednesday evening. "We've been in negotiations with that (person's) lawyer, but someone can always change their mind.

"Public corruption should always be a priority," he said. "If it's there, we need to make sure those cases are being made."

Steve Cole, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, declined to comment.

The criminal complaint and plea agreement will likely be filed at the same time, possibly by week's end.

A number of local sitting and former public officials have drawn scrutiny recently from federal authorities:

?Thomas E. Stringer Sr., a veteran judge on the 2nd District Court of Appeal, resigned in February amid allegations that he took gifts from a stripper and helped conceal her assets. According to formal misconduct charges filed by the Judicial Qualifications Commission, Stringer provided the woman with access to bank accounts opened in his name to hide her assets and income after a judge threw out her bankruptcy petition and ordered her to pay creditors.

He also listed himself as the sole title holder on an investment property in Hawaii that Christy Yamanaka helped purchase, according to the charges.

The JQC dropped the ethics complaint after Stringer agreed to never again serve as a judge, but the stripper said that the FBI had been investigating the case.

On Wednesday, Yamanaka said she was unaware of imminent charges. Stringer and his attorney did not return phone messages.

• Buddy Johnson, the former Hillsborough County supervisor of elections. The FBI launched an investigation in February into Johnson, but the focus is unknown. Aside from questionable land deals in Johnson's private life, there's the issue of how Johnson left behind a deficit of more than $2 million in the supervisor's office.

Agents have seized records from Ernst & Young auditors that detailed how Johnson spent public money, and they've reviewed financial records from Schifino Lee, a South Tampa advertising agency that was paid $643,016 to conduct a public education campaign. Agents also have interviewed several people, including Michelle Patty, a community activist who campaigned for Johnson and received more than $16,000 in taxpayer money from Johnson's office.

Last week, auditors hired by the Florida Department of State finished reviewing records that show how Johnson spent federal grant money. Auditors with the Deloitte firm spent several weeks inspecting records, but their report isn't expected to be completed for another two to three weeks, said Jennifer Davis, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Kurt Browning.

Johnson and his attorney did not return messages.

• Kevin White, a Hillsborough County commissioner, also has been the subject of FBI inquiries in recent years.

The mother of a former aide accusing White of sexual discrimination has testified that agents interviewed her daughter about her former boss but was asked not to repeat the subject matter.

And convicted mortgage swindler Matthew B. Cox told the FBI in 2007 that he paid cash to White in return for favorable rezoning votes when White served on the Tampa City Council. White vehemently denied the allegation, calling it lies and "jailhouse ramblings'' by a con man. Cox is serving a 26-year sentence for fraud.

Steven Wenzel, White's civil attorney, said Wednesday that he was not aware of any federal criminal charges involving his client. White could not be reached.

• And last year, the U.S. Attorney's Office started a probe into Hillsborough County's Affordable Housing Office, which had been accused by commissioners of squandering $2 million in federal grant money. The status of that case is unknown.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Michael Van Sickler, Jessica Vander Velde, Bill Varian, Janet Zink and Sue Carlton contributed to this story. Kevin Graham can be reached at kgraham@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Federal prosecutor from Tampa: Public corruption charge coming 07/22/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 5:02pm]
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