Sunday, June 17, 2018
News Roundup

Pinellas County's top officials to discuss County Attorney Jim Bennett's perks

CLEARWATER — Retiring Pinellas County Attorney Jim Bennett enjoys a few perks that no other county employee receives.

Bennett belongs to the state pension system, but since 2008 the county has also contributed $201,000 to his tax-deferred personal retirement account on top of that pension. He will be able to access that money when he retires on July 30.

His contract also calls for a $9,000-a-year car allowance — or $750 a month. That is an extra $66,000 Bennett has received since 2008.

Those rare perks flew under the radar until Bennett announced Jan. 30 that he will retire this summer. Now they will be among the topics discussed when Pinellas County's seven commissioners and five constitutional officers meet today to come up with a strategy to hire a new county attorney.

This is new ground for Pinellas County government. The 12-member committee was created when voters approved a Pinellas County Charter amendment in November to create an oversight committee with the power to hire, fire and evaluate the county attorney. Before the amendment, only the Pinellas County Commission could do that.

While Bennett is set to depart, his perks have become an issue because four commissioners who have taken office since 2012 said they didn't know about them.

"I've been struggling with this for two weeks," County Commission chairwoman Janet Long, who was elected in 2012, said at a recent meeting. "I think this is a problem. (Bennett) doesn't seem to think it's a problem."

Bennett, 65, who earns about $217,000 a year, did not respond to the Tampa Bay Times about the perks. He told elected officials in an email that "it would not be appropriate to respond to this press inquiry" because the matter is set for public discussion.

In October 2008, the commission voted 6-1 to approve Bennett's contract. But the meeting minutes from three discussions do not mention the additional retirement contributions. Commissioner Karen Seel was the lone dissenter, records show, because she had a "problem with the auto allowance."

Bennett's retirement account is a 457(b) tax-deferred retirement savings plan offered by municipal governments, like the private-sector 401(k) plans. Tax-deferred plans are optional for other employees, but the county does not make contributions.

In 2008, commissioners re-evaluated the contract for the county attorney during contract negotiations with then-incoming county administrator Bob LaSala, records show. Like Bennett, LaSala also received taxpayer contributions for his deferred-retirement account.

Commissioners replaced LaSala with assistant county administrator Mark Woodard in 2014. The longtime Pinellas employee declined an employment contract, saying he did not want any perks that rank-and-file employees do not receive.

Long said it was while preparing for today's oversight committee meeting that she discovered commissioners had not publicly discussed Bennett's compensation since 2008, even though his contract requires it. On Feb. 16, Long emailed the contract to each commissioner and asked them to "give some thought to what this package represents in today's dollars."

Last week, Long told the board that she was "embarrassed" she did not know about the contract. She faulted Bennett for not being transparent and informing the four newest commissioners about his compensation package.

Seel and Commissioner Ken Welch were in office in 2008. Welch said he did not "recall" the provision that taxpayers would match Bennett's contributions. Seel said she was "caught off guard" and needed more information before discussing the contract.

Commissioners Charlie Justice, Dave Eggers and Pat Gerard also did not know about Bennett's contract. All have been elected since 2012.

"I'm a little embarrassed that I don't know what his package is," Eggers said. "That's a little bit concerning."

Bennett has spent three decades giving legal advice to county government. He became the acting county attorney after the county commission fired his predecessor over a land sale scandal.

Recently, his office has drawn criticism for the legal advice it gave to the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, which is now the subject of a grand jury investigation.

Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

Comments
FBI agent removed from Russia probe for anti-Trump texts says he’s willing to testify before Congress

FBI agent removed from Russia probe for anti-Trump texts says he’s willing to testify before Congress

The FBI agent who was removed from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election for sending anti-Trump texts intends to testify before the House Judiciary Committee and any other congressional committee that asks, his attorney sai...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Erosion of immigrant protections began with Trump inaugural

Erosion of immigrant protections began with Trump inaugural

The Trump administration’s move to separate immigrant parents from their children on the U.S.-Mexico border has grabbed attention around the world, drawn scorn from human-rights organizations and overtaken the immigration debate in Congress.It’s also...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Motorcyclist and pedestrian die in Pasco crash

Motorcyclist and pedestrian die in Pasco crash

NEW PORT RICHEY — A motorcyclist and pedestrian both died in a crash Saturday night near Palmetto Road and U.S. 19, police reported.About 10:30 p.m., a St. Petersburg man, 41, was riding a 2012 Honda motorcycle north on the highway, according to the ...
Updated: 6 hours ago
For starters: Rays at Yankees, looking to avoid a four-game sweep

For starters: Rays at Yankees, looking to avoid a four-game sweep

UPDATE, 11:37: Interesting decision by the Rays to move Adames to 2B today and reinstall Hechavarria at SS as he came off DL following Arroyo injury.Here is the Rays lineup:Duffy 3bBauers 1bRamos cCron dhAdames 2bHechavarria ssGomez rfRefsnyder lfFie...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Chicago soldier killed in Korea finally being laid to rest

Chicago soldier killed in Korea finally being laid to rest

CHICAGO — Not long after her father went missing during the Korean War, Carol Elkin spotted then-Gen. Dwight Eisenhower in downtown Chicago and did what any kid might do when coming face to face with the nation’s most famous soldier: She ...
Updated: 7 hours ago
1 dead, 20 injured in New Jersey arts festival shooting

1 dead, 20 injured in New Jersey arts festival shooting

TRENTON, N.J — Shooting broke out at an all-night art festival in Trenton, New Jersey, early Sunday, sending people stampeding from the scene and leaving one suspect dead and 20 people injured, a local prosecutor said. Many of the 20 injured were tre...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Peering into the crystal baseball to see what Rays could look like in 2019

Peering into the crystal baseball to see what Rays could look like in 2019

The Rays are still talking, as they should, about playing for something this season. The reality is that almost every move they've made, going back to the end of last season, and in some cases further, has been about 2019 and beyond.Clearing out vete...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Rays lose again to Yankees, this time 4-1

Rays lose again to Yankees, this time 4-1

NEW YORK — Kevin Cash was not going to go all Lou Piniella on his Rays, raging and ripping and roaring over their latest mess, a 4-1 Saturday loss to the Yankees that didn't feel that close.Which is too bad because Piniella, the volcanic former...
Published: 06/16/18

Lottery resultsNumbers drawn after 9 p.m. are no longer available by our deadlines. For results, please go to tampabay.com/lottery.Pick 2, 3, 4, 5Sun., June 17, midday:xx xxx xxxxe_SRitxxxxxSun., June 17, evening:xx xxx xxxxe_SRitxxxxxFantasy 5Sunday...
Published: 06/16/18
Hurricane Maria family resettles in Riverview, only to be left homeless by lightning strike

Hurricane Maria family resettles in Riverview, only to be left homeless by lightning strike

RIVERVIEW — It was the most routine of errands, shopping for a cooler and some shorts. Joel Jaca and Arelys Gomez, both 40, had turned an important corner, miles away from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. They had finally gotten out of their re...
Published: 06/16/18