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A closer look at St. Petersburg mayoral candidate's paint company

When a hospital in Bradenton couldn't treat a Scott Paint employee's staph infection, CEO Scott Wagman paid for the man to visit the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville.

When the Jacksonville hospital couldn't help, Wagman sent him to a see the specialist at Minnesota's Mayo Clinic.

George Terruso never lost a day of pay during that weeks-long ordeal some 20 years ago, his wife, Betty Terruso, said recently.

And later, when Terruso retired from Scott Paint, Terruso got to keep his company car for nearly 10 years of service.

"Scott is a good, decent man," said Betty Terruso, who lives with her husband, now 81, in Sebring. "He did anything and everything for his employees."

The story, which Wagman tells on the campaign trail without using the Terrusos' names, is a microcosm of the brand the former paint executive and St. Petersburg mayoral candidate is trying to build for himself.

Wagman hasn't missed a chance to tout his experience leading Scott Paint, the family business he took over at age 26.

Growing a four employee business to 140 employees.

Taking annual revenues from $400,000 a year to nearly $19 million.

Creating a paint recycling program that is the model for several Florida counties.

The talking points dominate Wagman speeches, despite the fact that he hasn't worked for Scott Paint for nearly 10 years and amid questions about the company's environmental track record.

Wagman doesn't shy from the record, or his family's former company.

"Following someone's past is an absolute precursor to how they're going to behave in the future," Wagman, 56, said Friday. "You can only judge a person by their past. You can't judge a person by all the wonderful things they say they're going to do."

A family business

Employees, current and former, heap praise on Wagman, a Tulane graduate who took over the business his parents started in 1979.

Even an employee who admits Wagman essentially fired him has nothing but love for him.

"I thought Scott was very forward thinking," said Lou Rector, a former Pinellas paint salesman. "I thought he was very fair. I thought he was very innovative. He was always trying to do the right thing, even after I was let go by him."

Rector, who now lives in Indian Rocks Beach, gives Wagman some of the credit for Rector starting his own business, Corrosion Control Technologies.

Wagman and his father, Bernie, kept one large office and were always available to employees, said Rex Harrison, a retired Bradenton salesman who worked for Scott Paint for 12 years.

As president, he said the younger Wagman was an innovator who was active in the community and supportive of employees.

"It was just a family run company and everybody felt like family," Harrison said.

Two employees filed discrimination charges against Wagman and Scott Paint in 1990, saying they were fired for trying to form a union. The National Labor Relations Board dismissed the complaint, citing a lack of evidence.

Wagman said he fired the men because they underperformed and was unaware they had even been moving to form a union.

Environmental record

An examination of Sarasota County and state records shows several environmental incidents during Wagman's 20-plus-year tenure.

Scott Paint was warned about illegally dumping paint products in 1991 after a Sarasota County employee saw company workers trying to dump a 20-cubic-yard trash bin at an area landfill. The bin, according to a county report, contained wet paint waste, cloths with wet paint waste, paint sludge, and other chemicals.

That same year, a company executive was accused of illegal dumping by another employee who said he saw people digging holes at a Sarasota location and pouring chemicals into the soil. The Sarasota Sheriff's Office investigated the complaint, but there is no record that anyone was ever prosecuted.

Wagman said the complainant was a problem employee who eventually was fired.

Domenic Letobarone, emergency response specialist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Bureau of Emergency Response, said it's not uncommon for businesses dealing with chemicals to sometimes dispose of materials improperly.

"Businesses, sometimes they cut corners to save on properly disposing pollutants ... and instead of taking care of waste properly we find it dumped," said Letobarone, who was speaking generally and not about Scott Paint.

The county, which bought the Scott Paint site after the company moved to another location in 1993, later found two 55-gallon paint drums buried beneath the soil.

The state DEP found the soil contaminated and ordered a cleanup. Wagman said he paid for the work, which cost about $400,000

"If you and your wife baked 10 cakes a day for 25 years, it's reasonable to assume that you would have spilled a little milk or dropped some eggshells," Wagman said, trying to draw an analogy to the paint business. "Over time, you would have made a little mess. And you would clean it up."

In 1998, a Sarasota man who lived next to Scott Paint's factory called county officials to complain that six people and one dog had contracted cancer.

The man, Richard White, said the factory had contaminated area groundwater and soil. The county never investigated. White, who still lives in Sarasota, could not be reached.

His brother, Michael Boydston White, said he has not kept in contact with his brother, but says his description of their family's cancer history does not seem accurate.

"I do remember him saying something about a paint factory, and what he believed," Boydston White said. "But it was so long ago."

Wagman said he was never informed of the allegations, and that if there was any truth to them, he would have been sued. He hasn't.

Wagman says he helped build a paint recycling program that is used in seven Florida counties, designed Scott Paint's new factory to be more environmentally sensitive and just Friday, touted the endorsement of the Suncoast Sierra Club.

fast facts

What does he

do these days?

Scott Wagman sold Scott Paint in 1998 to a Baltimore company for an undisclosed price. Since retiring from the paint business, Wagman has invested in a substantial portfolio of office buildings and other property in the Tampa Bay area. Property appraisers list their combined market value at slightly more than $4 million.

A closer look at St. Petersburg mayoral candidate's paint company 07/10/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 10, 2009 11:28pm]
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