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Tampa incident underscores politicians' heightened security worries

Whenever he feels the powers-that-be are heading in the wrong direction, Guyton Thompson picks up the phone and gives them an earful.

Newly elected state Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, recently drew his ire, and Thompson used strong language to let her know. He told Young's staff that some of her votes made it seem like she was in the pocket of big business.

Her aides later complained to the Tampa Police Department, saying Thompson, 58, was irrational, agitated and over-the-top. The next thing Thompson knew, detectives were knocking on the door of his South Tampa residence to ask whether he planned to harm Young or her staff.

Such is the state of constituent access post-Tucson, where a gunman on Jan. 8 killed six people at a campaign event and wounded 13 others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. People can still disagree with their elected representatives and even express anger, but such words these days are more likely to attract scrutiny.

Even before the Arizona rampage, Florida legislators and their aides received security training. They were told to report perceived threats to the office of the sergeant at arms, whose duties include advising members on security issues.

But that point has been emphasized since Tucson.

"He certainly reiterated the importance of not only reaching out to the sergeant's office, but also local law enforcement, if appropriate," said Katie Betta, the spokeswoman for House Speaker Dean Cannon.

At least one other House member has filed a security complaint this year. Will Snyder, R-Stuart, received a threatening e-mail just one hour after Giffords was shot.

It criticized Snyder for introducing legislation that would have given local law enforcement agencies greater leeway in investigating illegal immigration. "You better just stop that ridiculous law if you value your and your family's lives," it said.

The Martin County Sheriff's Office later arrested Manuel Pintado of Massachusetts. He said he didn't intend to kill Snyder, but "was glad the e-mail made (Snyder) nervous," according to published reports.

Snyder said the incident shows that heated rhetoric is an unfortunate part of public service. "There are extremists on both ends of the political spectrum," he said.

Thompson's case wasn't as clear-cut. He never threatened anyone and was not verbally abusive, Betta said. But Young was still justified in calling the sergeant at arms and police, she said.

"It's really their judgment call," Betta said.

Young was particularly concerned because an aide who works alone in the Tampa office was berated during one of Thompson's phone calls, Betta said. Her staff wondered if he might drop by unannounced.

This isn't the first time Thompson's special brand of activism has got him into trouble. In 1993, he was charged with making repeated telephone calls to the customer service line for HART, the Hillsborough County mass transit system, a misdemeanor.

Court records show he was found guilty and sentenced to community service and six months of probation, but Thompson said the charges were dropped on appeal. That couldn't be confirmed because the case file has been destroyed.

Thompson doesn't deny that he can be a "pain in the keister."

In HART's case, he complained about poor service. With Young, he lambasted her votes to reduce unemployment benefits and establish leadership funds that allow lawmakers to raise large amounts of cash.

"Not only was I questioning what she did," he said, "I was criticizing it."

Thompson called Young's offices several times, most recently March 29. A couple of detectives showed up at his house later that day.

The Tampa Police Department is routinely called to follow up when a public official from the city becomes concerned about a potential threat.

"It gives us a chance to assess what the problems are between the two parties and try to resolve any type of ongoing dispute the two may have," said Tampa police spokeswoman Janelle McGregor.

The detectives ultimately determined that Thompson did not pose a threat.

McGregor said it is the department's duty to treat every complaint with urgency: "We'd rather have a hundred false alarms than one real one."

Thompson said he wasn't intimidated by the detectives' visit and will call Young's office again if he feels the need.

"I do have a right to call my elected representative, no matter what level, any time I want," he said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

Tampa incident underscores politicians' heightened security worries 04/10/11 [Last modified: Sunday, April 10, 2011 11:09pm]
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