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Safety Harbor, prosecutors argue over theft case evidence

SAFETY HARBOR — The case against the city's former finance director is over. The finger-pointing has begun.

City officials thought they had JoAnne Ryan cold. Auditors, they said, documented that she took more than $215,000 from the taxpayers. Last month, Mayor Andy Steingold made it sound as if the city had given prosecutors a gift-wrapped conviction that would send Ryan away for many years.

"The city provided the state attorney with enough information to have Ms. Ryan charged with first-degree felony grand theft," Steingold said then, "and we expect that they will prosecute her to the fullest extent of the law."

But on Thursday, prosecutors accepted a plea deal to a lesser charge of second-degree grand theft, carrying a maximum sentence of 15 years. But they gave Ryan a deal that means she will serve no more than two years — and perhaps no prison time at all.

The evidence provided by the city, they said, was weak.

"The city was saying it was more," said Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett, "but we couldn't substantiate that fact. They haven't given us everything."

What Steingold has described as a rather complete set of evidence against Ryan, Bartlett described as something far less.

His investigator, Bartlett said, "was continually going back and forth" to City Hall. "We ended up having to do a lot of legwork to pull the case together. It was very time-consuming."

Steingold responded:

"They want to point the finger at us. The city of Safety Harbor is not an investigative branch; we don't have our own police department. We are not the prosecutor here; we are the victim.''

If the case was not strong enough, Steingold said, prosecutors "could have taken more time."

Steingold said he was not surprised by the prosecutor's decision to charge Ryan with second-degree grand theft rather than first-degree.

Earlier, Steingold said, he spoke to Assistant State Attorney Gregory Groger "and he said (the case) was weak, it would be hard to prove. As a former prosecutor, I thought to myself, 'Are you kidding me?'

"We've given them ample opportunity to pursue at minimum a circumstantial case," Steingold said, "we've given them motive, scheme."

At another point, Steingold maintained that years ago he had a client "who stole less money than that … and she got 20 years."

But Bartlett said prosecutors never received the audit city officials have been talking about for weeks, the one Steingold said showed Ryan stole more than $200,000.

What did they get?

"Records, deposit slips," Bartlett said. "Forensically, it's a big job. You have to reconstruct the whole chain of events."

Ryan, he said, "acknowledged stealing between $70,000 and $80,000," which is second-degree grand theft, and that what prosecutors charged and Ryan pleaded to.

City Manager Matt Spoor said the audit wouldn't give prosecutors any more evidence than the records city officials did turn over.

Still, as Bartlett pointed out, "there is nothing for us to gain in not pursuing" the case fully.

Some good news for the city did emerge Friday.

Bartlett revealed that Ryan has already agreed to pay back $50,000 and "we will be seeking more" at sentencing on Aug. 7.

City officials expect to get $100,000 in insurance.

While defending his office's handling of the Ryan case, Bartlett acknowledged that Safety Harbor officials are probably right in asserting that Ryan stole more than what she pleaded guilty to.

"Beyond $100,000,'' Bartlett said. "We suspect there was probably more."

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

Safety Harbor, prosecutors argue over theft case evidence 05/23/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 23, 2009 12:14pm]
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