CLEARWATER — Scott Swope, the Democratic candidate for Pinellas County sheriff, faces long odds in his election bid. His opponent, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, has raised $304,000 in campaign cash to Swope's $38,000, and the Sheriff's Office has stayed in Republican hands for the past 32 years.
But Swope says he has the upper hand on Gualtieri in a key area: financial acumen. On the campaign trail, Swope points to his University of South Florida business degree and his experience running a law firm as proof of his managerial mettle.
"I've got business education, and I've got real-world experience in running a multimillion-dollar business," Swope said in a recent interview, echoing remarks he has made repeatedly at debates and public forums.
But a closer look at Swope's professional track record suggests his business decisions can be seen as liabilities — quite literally — instead of assets. The $2 million-per-year, personal-injury law firm he founded in 2001 has collapsed, riven by internal conflict and crushed under debt.
The handsome stucco-and-tile building the law firm once occupied on Sunset Point Road in Clearwater is in the midst of an $800,000 foreclosure by Regions Bank, according to court documents. The bank is suing Swope and his former law partners to recover an additional $196,000 owed on a line of credit, for a total of $996,000.
Swope's private finances are also less than tidy. In 2009, a judge overseeing his divorce chided him for his budgeting priorities. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Jack Helinger stated in a written order that Swope had spent $5,000 on an engagement ring for his new fiancee and $3,000 on a vasectomy reversal, even as the mortgage went unpaid on the house still occupied by his ex-wife.
Swope said it would be wrong to conclude from this history that he is imprudent with money. He says his current firm, now 4 years old, is profitable.
He said his former law firm — Hale, Swope & Paulsen — was prosperous before he left in 2008 amid a dispute with his partners, and that its economic issues since then were not his fault. His personal affairs, including disagreements over money with his ex-wife, were affected by his career tumult, he said.
"Everything that exists here with my finances, it all started when my former partners forced me out of that law firm," Swope said. (Swope and the firm dispute the circumstances of his departure in an ongoing lawsuit.)
"It was a $2 million-a-year law firm, I was making $150,000 to $160,000 a year, and the law firm was running like a top," he said. "Nothing that I did would have been considered irresponsible. I personally guaranteed loans so that my law firm could grow."
The Sheriff's Office is the county's biggest law enforcement agency, with a $215 million budget and 2,700 employees. Outside the school system, it's arguably the most visible face of government in Pinellas County.
Since 2008, when county tax revenue fell due to the crash of the real estate market, fiscal probity has been a prime qualification to lead the office. Gualtieri, who was chief deputy for four years before being appointed sheriff by Gov. Rick Scott last year, has spent much of his tenure wrestling with the budget, shrinking the agency's annual spending by $72 million.
Gualtieri said voters have a right to judge Swope by the money problems that have afflicted his business and private life.
"What does the public have to look at? They have to look at how he's conducted his personal and professional financial life. And it's a mess," Gualtieri said. "I think he should stop misleading people that he's got this pedigree of sound financial decisionmaking, judgment and success, because he doesn't."
Swope says his financial affairs may seem worse than they are. He said the old law firm, which he founded alone in 2001 before taking on employees and partners over the next decade, has enough remaining assets to settle the roughly $1 million owed to Regions Bank.
The firm's old office was locked and empty on a recent weekday morning. The Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office estimates its value at $490,000, about half the amount owed.
However, Swope says an appraiser for the bank set its value at $775,000 during a visit in the spring. A lawyer for Regions didn't return calls for comment.
In addition to Swope, three of his former law partners are also named in the foreclosure complaint. None of them responded to calls either.
Swope's ex-wife, Stephanie Swope, continues to live in the twice-mortgaged home she once shared with him. As part of their 2011 divorce settlement, she assumed responsibility for payments on the house. Scott Swope pays her $2,000 per month in combined alimony and child support.
It took years of legal wrangling to reach this arrangement. In 2009, Stephanie Swope complained in court papers that she had been forced to "liquidate a portion of her retirement account and borrow money from her family to prevent the house from going into foreclosure and to pay bills."
"We had two mortgages, and I was a stay-at-home mom," she said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. After the separation, she said, "I was just getting back to work. I was completely dependent on him."
The revelation that he was spending thousands on a new engagement ring and vasectomy reversal while she struggled with her personal finances, she said, "went through me like a hot poker. There's no other way to slice it. It was very hurtful."
Swope said that his financial affairs have stabilized, and that his new law firm — run with current wife Margaret Swope — is profitable. He denies that he's running for office in pursuit of the sheriff's $158,000 salary.
"If I didn't get elected, I'd be just fine in continuing to work for our law firm," he said.
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.