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Bill James

Former Hillsborough State Attorney William James dies

TAMPA — He was unpretentious, sometimes awkward. He had heavy eyes, gray hair and clunky glasses. His office doors didn't even bear nameplates.

But Bill James, a former Hillsborough state attorney, made noise. He spent years waging war against corruption, prosecuting mobsters and fielding death threats. He entered politics in a storm of controversy. Years later, he was bumped aside just as abruptly.

He slipped away quietly to Colorado, where he played blocks with his grandchildren and took up skiing. On Monday, Mr. James died following complications from a surgery. He was 75.

• • •

His resume was lengthy: FBI special agent; federal prosecutor; trial lawyer; chief of Tampa's U.S. Attorney's Office; head of the U.S. Organized Crime Strike Force.

His prosecution load was intense: an election scandal; a sports gambling ring; a labor union embezzlement case; railroad swindles.

He investigated a phony Pasco County bottle club referenced in the movie Donnie Brasco, and his office brought the Tampa case against Henry Hill and Jimmy Burke that was featured in the movie Goodfellas.

Some threats came his way.

"We've had people murdered who he had spoken to that day," said Chris Hoyer, who worked with Mr. James since 1975. "It was wild. But I never saw him afraid. That was the remarkable thing. He would just focus on the target."

In the 1980s, Mr. James investigated the shady business of Hillsborough County commissioners, who were later convicted of selling votes in a zoning case. Mr. James was outside his jurisdiction, and U.S. Attorney Robert Merkle knocked him off the case.

After that, he got bored, Hoyer said. He wanted more control over crime cases. In 1984, he decided to run for Hillsborough County state attorney. His opponent was the Democratic incumbent of 16 years, E.J. Salcines.

Salcines and Mr. James often butted heads. Once when Salcines claimed Tampa's mob was in check, Mr. James insisted it was rampant. They clashed most visibly over the 1975 murder investigation of Tampa police Detective Richard Cloud, an aggressive vice detective who was forced off the police force and began working with federal authorities to make organized crime cases. Cloud died in a mob hit, and Mr. James turned the full force of his federal office to bear, unearthing several Mafia connections.

In the 1984 race, Salcines had a huge following and a lock on minority votes. But he had troubles of his own — during the race, he was the target of a federal grand jury investigation.

Mr. James, a Republican, campaigned in the suburbs. He appealed to Ronald Reagan fans and spread a do-good message. He did the impossible. He won.

"Bill James was a worthy opponent," Salcines said Tuesday. "It's most regrettable he died so young."

His victory caused an uproar. Mark Ober, current Hillsborough state attorney, worked for Salcines. When Mr. James won, Ober announced his resignation. Mr. James called him.

"We want to talk to you," he told Ober. "We know you took the race very personally, but we'd like you to stay."

Ober stayed for two years.

• • •

Mr. James had zero political smoothness. He was painfully shy and uncomfortable with the press. He'd squirm and shuffle papers in tense situations.

"He hated that," said Hoyer, who became his chief assistant state attorney. "He hated every bit of it. He just wanted to be a prosecutor. He didn't like the trappings."

But he lived to chase bad guys. As state attorney, his hard-line philosophies rubbed some people as inflexible. Friends say he ascribed to a tall moral code.

"He truly believed in this office and the work that we do," said Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi, who interned under Mr. James during law school. "His motto was, 'Do the right thing.' Simple but very meaningful."

In 1993, he was unseated by a new wild card — former Circuit Judge Harry Lee Coe III.

Again, uproar. More than two dozen of Mr. James' top employees left. He went into private practice with Hoyer and others, but it never felt right. He didn't like charging for legal service.

In 1995, he moved to Steamboat Springs, Colo., and built a house with his wife, Gloria. He lived quietly, volunteering for his church, participating in cancer walks, watching equestrian tournaments and following politics.

And sometimes, he'd watch network news and look for his lawyer friends.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Sue Carlton, Justin George and Colleen Jenkins contributed to this report.

William James 1932-2008

Former Hillsborough State Attorney William James dies 06/17/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 19, 2008 9:17am]
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