ST. PETERSBURG — Bob Gualtieri, who was appointed Pinellas County sheriff last year by Gov. Rick Scott, has hired the man who helped get him the job.
Jim Coats, whose surprise early retirement as sheriff last year led to Gualtieri's appointment, was hired this month as a part-time lobbyist in Tallahassee. He will be paid $19 an hour plus expenses to lobby on two issues: limiting costs of inmate health care and fighting a bill that would eliminate early release programs that ease jail costs.
The governor named Gualtieri, who was chief deputy, as sheriff in November after Coats recommended him. Coats also endorsed Gualtieri in his sheriff's race.
Picking Coats is not a case of political favoritism, Gualtieri said. For one, he said, Coats didn't want the job. Coats also had lobbied for the department in the past and had been on the legislative affairs committee for the Florida Sheriffs Association, he said.
"It's more expensive for me to go up there," said Gualtieri, who kept his $152,000 chief deputy salary as he seeks election. "I asked Jim to represent us because of his knowledge and experience in dealing with these issues and his familiarity with the legislative process. I could have sent one of my senior commanders, but they don't have the contacts or know the issues as well. They'd have to reinvent the wheel."
One of Gualtieri's opponents in the November election, former sheriff Everett Rice, said he objected to Coats' hiring.
"This is unprecedented," Rice said. "Sheriffs don't hire lobbyists. The best lobbyist is the sheriff. But he seems more concerned with the election. Deputies haven't had a raise in years, and he's incurring unprecedented expenses."
Gualtieri denied Rice's allegation.
"It's ridiculous," he said. "To make political hay out of this is nonsense."
Gualtieri said he's not going up to Tallahassee because he's too busy getting acquainted with his new responsibilities. While Coats was known for lobbying Tallahassee during his seven years as sheriff, Gualtieri isn't the only sheriff to send others in his place.
Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee said he rarely goes, opting instead to send a high-ranking official and a deputy. Gee, who has endorsed Gualtieri in his campaign, said it makes sense to send someone with Coats' experience.
"He understands the system, so $19 an hour is a pretty good deal," Gee said.
Coats said Gualtieri approached him and offered a rate that was hardly unprecedented.
"Everett is trying to make this an issue, but I'm actually saving the taxpayers money," Coats said. "I'm getting a nominal fee. It's almost a bottom tier rate."
If he prevails on the two issues, the savings for taxpayers will far outweigh his costs, he said.
So far, Coats has been reimbursed for a two-day trip starting Jan. 11. He charged $158 for expenses such as food, lodging and gas. He drove a Pinellas County sheriff's vehicle (a Chevy Malibu). Gualtieri said volunteers and part-time employees often drive sheriff's cars.
Coats charged another $222.30 for 11.7 hours he said he worked. He attended a Senate committee meeting for the inmate health care bill, which passed. Gualtieri said he's not sure when, or if, Coats will return to Tallahassee.
Even Rice acknowledged he had no issue that it was Coats who is lobbying.
"He probably knows those issues better than anyone," Rice said.
Instead, Rice said he questioned whether it was appropriate to send anyone other than Gualtieri. He pointed out that the Florida Sheriffs Association already lobbies on law enforcement issues, so it's redundant to send Coats.
The FSA's executive director, however, said Coats was a welcome addition.
"Coats has been the FSA point man on two major issues for the sheriffs, particularly in Pinellas County," said Steve Casey. "Both of these issues, pretrial release and inmate medical bills, could involve hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Pinellas County taxpayers. FSA personally asked Coats if he could continue to assist with these issues even though he retired."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or [email protected]