Wednesday, April 25, 2018
News Roundup

State attorney Ober testifies in Bubba the Love Sponge trial

TAMPA — Mark Ober spent the week tending to his typical responsibilities as Hillsborough County's top prosecutor — grappling with legislative and budget issues on Monday, contemplating murder charges on Thursday.

Then, on Friday, this:

Taking the witness stand in a legal showdown between dueling shock jocks. Ober joined the parade of witnesses in the trial of a lawsuit filed by Todd "MJ Kelli" Schnitt and his wife, Michelle, who contend that longtime radio rival Bubba the Love Sponge Clem made "false, highly offensive and defamatory statements" about them.

The state attorney's role?

That dates back to the morning of Feb. 27, 2001, when a doomed wild boar was led out of a cage with a rope tied around his neck. His name was Andy, Clem told his radio audience.

"Andy must die."

A show producer gave a play-by-play as the boar was castrated, his throat slit. Clem accentuated the scene with the recorded squeals of pigs.

Ober's office charged him and others involved with the third-degree felony of animal cruelty.

It was a conspiracy, Clem alleged, influenced by a secret meeting between the state attorney and the Schnitts to put him in jail.

Michelle Schnitt was a prosecutor in Ober's office.

Ober was called to testify that he did not, in fact, conspire with the Schnitts to take down their on-air enemy.

He took the witness stand, greeted the judge, raised his hand and swore to tell the truth.

Ober did not appear rushed in his answers. He turned to the jury box as he gave a lesson on the great power and responsibility of his office:

"I can have you arrested," he said. "I can have you held up in a county jail. I can take your liberty away in certain cases, up to life in prison. And I can ask, or my assistants can ask, that you be executed. I do not take that lightly."

He recalled that Mrs. Schnitt was a prosecutor in his office, but fresh out of law school, working misdemeanors under very close supervision. He said she would never have been involved in decisions to pursue felony charges.

But did he know, an attorney asked, that his employee was married to the radio DJ named MJ?

"By title only," Ober said. "I will tell you, I'm a sports radio guy and I have never in my life listened to the morning show that he had. I had no idea what the genre was. I knew nothing about it. Now, I have listened to him more recently during the last election, on 970, on the Schnitt Show."

"You just won him back," the attorney said to Schnitt.

The defense brought up the fact that Clem was acquitted of the animal cruelty charges.

"You said your office deemed it a crime," said attorney Gregory Hearing. "But in fact, the jury determined that it wasn't a crime, correct?"

"Well," Ober responded, "we can get very philosophical if you choose to. The jury verdict says not guilty. It doesn't say innocent. And there's a fine line between what that constitutes . . .

"I accept the jury verdict in this case,'' Ober continued. "But if I was presented the same facts today, I would have tried him again."

On the day Clem was booked into the Orient Road jail more than a decade ago, he shook as he handed in his car keys and gold chain.

He was getting death threats mailed to his home. On his Bubba's Ale House in New Port Richey, someone spray-painted PIG KILLER.

Ober may not have heard from the Schnitts, but he was getting hundreds of calls, e-mails and letters of outrage from animal lovers across the nation. As a thank you for pursuing charges, one woman promised to name a newborn piglet Ober.

On the day he and others were acquitted, Clem vowed revenge — a massive voter-registration drive to oust the state attorney.

"When you take a shot at the king, you better kill him. And they didn't kill me," Clem said as he sailed out of the courthouse that day. "I think they underestimated who they were screwing with. I'm not trying to be cocky, but when election comes around, Mr. Ober will know who he screwed with."

Eleven years later, Ober walked off the witness stand still very much in charge of the state's prosecution, leaving behind Bubba and Schnitt so he could peruse an appellate opinion in a death penalty case.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.

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