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Hiring of familiar name as police chief raises familiar complaint

PALMETTO — Human nature being what it is, who you are and whom you know often helps in landing work. But some Manatee County residents say the old boy network is unusually active in their part of the world.

Consider:

The police chief of Palmetto abruptly retired this month. His replacement? Rick Wells, son of Manatee County's former, but still powerful, Sheriff Charlie Wells.

Then there's Republican Party heavyweight Paul Sharff. Appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist as chairman of Manatee's Early Learning Coalition, Sharff is now the agency's $90,000-a-year executive director even though he is a once-bankrupt real estate investor who has no particular education experience.

And another organization that gets tax money, Manatee County Rural Health Services, has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to businesses owned by its officers and directors. It also hired former Sheriff Wells and spent at least $1.7 million with a company whose officers included the daughter of Walter Presha, CEO of Manatee County Rural Health Services.

None of this comes as a big surprise to observers of the local scene.

"There is a good old boy club here,'' said Barbara Elliott, a Bradenton artist and community activist. "They have awesome power.''

With its fine beaches and easy driving distance to Tampa and St. Petersburg, Manatee has seen its population swell 20 percent, to 318,000, in the past decade. But it still has the feel of a place where decisions affecting many are often in the hands of a few.

The latest example came July 7 when Garry Lowe announced he was retiring after nine years as chief of the 52-member Palmetto Police Department. At the same hastily called press conference, Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant said her choice to replace him was the former sheriff's son.

It was the second time that Rick Wells, who has a high school diploma, had landed a plum job. Barely a month after his father retired in 2007, the new sheriff hired Wells, who had been a $52,000-a-year state trooper, and made him a $74,000-a-year lieutenant, overseeing crime prevention efforts.

In his three years with the Sheriff's Office, Wells, 45, was professional and hard working, according to evaluations by his bosses. However, they rated him as "meeting standards'' — two rungs below the top grade of "exemplary performance.''

Still, the mayor said she was impressed enough by Wells' 26 years in law enforcement and knowledge of Palmetto, population 14,000, to pick him without a public search. Bryant considered just two other candidates, whom she would not identify. She said the elder Wells never talked to her about hiring his son.

"If you eliminate everybody that didn't have a college degree and discounted all their years of service, you'd toss away a lot of very valuable people,'' Bryant said. "He (Rick Wells) is well-respected in the community and he's been very well received.''

The Bradenton Herald, though, called the selection process "swift and shameless maneuvering.'' It said "the entire episode smacks of good ol' boy politics.''

And City Commissioner Alan Zirkelbach sent the mayor an e-mail. "Given the Herald article and general public sentiment,'' he wrote, "would it not be prudent to appoint him interim and do public vetting?''

Nonetheless, commissioners unanimously approved the mayor's choice. Wells, who took over the $87,569-a-year job on July 19, said he had begun asking about the position in February when Lowe, whom he has known since high school, told him he planned to retire.

"I do always get hooked up with my father,'' Wells said, "but my career is what I've made of it.''

During his years with the Police Department, Lowe got his real estate license (he owns several rental properties) and became board chairman of the nonprofit Manatee County Rural Health Services. From a modest start in 1978, it has grown to a $55-million-a-year behemoth that gets federal and state money and provides medical care to 83,000 people in Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties.

Between December 2007 and November 2008, according to the latest records available, Lowe received $15,700 for renting storage space to the health organization. During that period, it paid a total of $562,332 to businesses owned by its officers, directors and other insiders.

Nonprofit organizations are required to report what the IRS calls "self-dealing'' on the annual 990 tax forms they file with the federal government.

Lowe did not respond to calls seeking comment.

The organization also reported paying $142,000 for construction and maintenance done by a company whose majority owner is Trina Presha-Rosier. Her father, Walter, is the $437,000-a-year president of Manatee County Rural Health Services.

But the organization's tax forms did not report $1.7 million paid to the Pinnacle Group of Sarasota, a company in which Presha-Rosier was also an officer and part owner. The elder Presha said he didn't know his daughter had ties to the firm, which built a new health center in eastern Manatee in 2006.

"If she were a member of that company and we did business with that company, we should have listed it,'' Presha said.

Presha-Rosier said she had a 10 percent ownership stake in the firm but "wasn't really involved'' in the health center job. At the time, she said, she had recently gotten her general contractor's license and was serving what she called an "internship'' before starting her own company.

Another familiar name at Manatee County Rural Health Services is Charlie Wells.

Since the former sheriff retired in 2007 with a net worth of $8 million — by far the most of any Florida sheriff — he has been the organization's "executive vice president for intergovernmental affairs.'' In the 2007-08 budget year, he was paid $102,649.

Wells, who also started a consulting company and a private investigation firm after retiring, was hired to help the rural health agency set up a new nonprofit organization, Family Health Care Centers of Manatee.

"It's a foundation that raises money'' for Manatee County Rural Health Services, Presha said. It has not yet filed any forms with the IRS.

Wells' wife, Leslie, is a former business partner of another well-connected Manatee resident, Paul Sharff.

After Sharff moved from West Virginia to Florida in the early '90s, he and Leslie Wells founded Gold Star Realty. He developed a flashy lifestyle and became a big player in Republican politics, helping boost Attorney Gen. Bill McCollum and Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist into office.

After Crist's 2006 victory, Sharff treated paid campaign staffers to four days in the Bahamas. In 2008, Crist appointed him chairman of the Early Learning Coalition of Manatee County, a government-funded organization that oversees school readiness programs.

Last August the coalition board approved Sharf's new employment contract and gave him a 17 percent raise — to $90,000 — at a time he had just declared bankruptcy with $22.9 million in debt, much of it stemming from his real estate ventures.

(A judge dismissed the bankruptcy filing in January because Sharff failed to insure his properties. He is the defendant in 28 foreclosure cases, and he and Leslie Wells are being sued by a group of Bradenton condo owners for allegedly misleading them about improvements to the units.)

In August, the Early Learning Coalition board also voted to remove one of its members who had complained she was denied permission to speak about Sharff's contract. It bars him from any other business or employment "except for the management of his private personal investments'' without the board's written consent.

Asked for comment, Sharff told the St. Petersburg Times to e-mail him any questions it had. He did not respond.

Despite his legal and financial problems, the 52-year-old Sharff remains close to Crist. Sharff resigned as Republican committeeman for Manatee County in April after Crist decided to run for the U.S. Senate as an independent.

And Sharff still heads Crist's campaign in Manatee.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

Hiring of familiar name as police chief raises familiar complaint 07/30/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 31, 2010 8:10pm]

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