DUNEDIN — Over the past few months, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has faced withering attacks in his election campaign from challenger and former Sheriff Everett Rice over his agency's scandal-plagued narcotics division.
Now it looks like Rice has company.
At an election forum held at Dunedin-Palm Harbor VFW Post 2550 on Wednesday night, all five candidates running against Gualtieri to head Pinellas County's largest law-enforcement agency sought to make political hay from revelations earlier this year of tarnished drug investigations.
The pile-on culminated with a surprise endorsement: In his closing statement, Tim Ingold, a former union leader who retired from the Sheriff's Office as a captain in 2010, said he was quitting the race and throwing his support behind Rice.
"It's kind of become clear that there are two candidates in this Republican primary," Ingold said, referring to Gualtieri and Rice, both Republicans, who have the most financial muscle and name recognition in the race. "Effective tonight I'm going to end my campaign. I can't go forward. But I do believe that change is needed, and I'm going to support Everett Rice in his campaign."
The announcement came after other candidates spent much of the evening criticizing Gualtieri for what they said was a loss of public trust in the Sheriff's Office. Earlier this year, allegations emerged that deputies had trespassed and stolen from suspects in investigations of marijuana grow houses, then destroyed video evidence of their misbehavior. Criminal defense attorneys have called for federal intervention to clean up the department.
Detectives also improperly accessed Progress Energy records to track electricity use at suspected grow houses, Gualtieri has acknowledged. One narcotics detective donned a Progress Energy uniform and impersonated a utility worker in an effort to approach a suspect's house. Concerns over the investigations have led prosecutors to drop marijuana cases.
"The biggest problem in the Sheriff's Office right now is an integrity problem," said candidate Scott Swope, a Palm Harbor Democrat and attorney. "The only way to fix that problem is to replace the people at the top."
In response to his opponents' attacks, Gualtieri — the former chief deputy who was appointed last fall after former Sheriff Jim Coats announced he was stepping down — said it would be premature to take action before his office's internal affairs investigations into the incidents are complete.
"I agree, unquestionably, that integrity is very important," Gualtieri said. "We're going to sail this into the headwind, and we're going to address it head-on. But one thing we have to keep in mind is that nothing's been decided about anybody, and the investigation is ongoing."
Rice said the problems could be resolved by focusing investigative efforts on illegal trade in prescription pain pills rather than marijuana.
"How is it that Pinellas and Pasco County became the pill-mill capital of the world in the last three or four years," Rice asked, "and meanwhile we're spying on people who have hydroponic materials?"
Randy Heine, a Pinellas Park Democrat, owner of a smoke shop, and an outspoken proponent of legalizing marijuana, also said he supported a shift in drug-enforcement priorities. "Everybody thinks because I own a smoke shop I'm a bad guy," Heine said. "Think of me as being undercover for 37 years. And you know what the conclusion is? The drug war is lost."
Gualtieri hasn't sat idle as the scandal in his narcotics unit has grown. The sheriff placed four deputies implicated in the questionable drug cases on administrative leave, increased the size of the department's internal affairs unit, and vowed to redirect investigations away from marijuana and toward other drugs, such as pain pills and heroin.
But such measures may not have allayed public concerns.
Harvey Smith, who organized the forum on behalf of Dunedin's National Armed Services and Law Enforcement Memorial Museum and selected questions for the candidates, said a persistent theme in the questions voters emailed to him was concern over reforms in the sheriff's narcotics unit.
Said Smith: "I think the real question in everyone's mind is, 'As sheriff and chief deputy, should he have known more about what's happening in the narcotics division?' "
Peter Jamison can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.