Monday, May 21, 2018
Politics

Mild-mannered Rob Turner startles friends and family with porn admission

TAMPA — Friends call Rob Turner mild-mannered.

His older brother in Georgia says he's reserved.

His sister-in-law of 40 years labels him a stick in the mud.

"He can let his hair down occasionally," Wanda Turner says, "but it doesn't go far."

The public now knows how far. The No. 1 man at the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's Office startled friends and strangers alike this month by admitting that he repeatedly emailed hard-core pornography to his human resources director.

He fired the woman, Carolyn Filippone, on May 21, alleging that she lied about him in a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Until all this, Turner, 60, who oversees an $11.1 million budget and 132 employees, had an image unblemished by scandal.

It is unclear what brain cells fired to wreak such havoc on an agency that exists, in part, to put a fair value on dirt. Turner, after initially discussing Filippone's allegations with the Tampa Bay Times, stopped returning calls.

But with an election around the corner, veteran politicians are maneuvering for his office.

And a man who pays $63,000 a year in alimony must now defend his $155,000-a-year job.

• • •

He grew up in Virginia Beach, Va., in a home where the U.S. Navy paid the bills.

He wrestled in high school and played drums in a garage band. He has a younger sister, Gina, and an older brother, Richard.

"My dad was strict," Richard Turner said. "He ruled with an iron hand, being a military man. It wasn't quite like Sound of Music where he had you march in line from smallest to tallest, but we definitely had to mind our P's and Q's."

Rob Turner, like his brother, could have followed his father into the Navy. Instead, he landed a job as a bank teller in Virginia Beach, even without a bachelor's degree. He married his first wife, Pat. They were together about four years, his brother said.

Then, in 1982, he married his second wife, Vivian. Everyone loved Vivian. She dished out good-natured grief even to her father-in-law and always tried to pound him in card games.

The Turner clan was a bowling family. They'd eat Easter dinner and head to the lanes. But, before long, banking people were coming to family cookouts. Wanda felt a little uncomfortable around them, thinking they put on airs. Richard noticed that his brother would choose words carefully.

But everyone saw, as the years passed, that Rob Turner had quiet ambition.

"If you want a job done," Wanda said, "Rob can do it."

The teller job was the first step in a financial career that took him from Virginia to Central Florida and then Tampa, where, in the mid 1990s, he became senior vice president for real estate banking at NationsBank.

Alex Sink, Florida's former chief financial officer and a longtime banking executive, remembers him working at the tower in downtown Tampa.

"He had a good reputation," she said.

Others thought so, too.

• • •

In the summer of 1996, the county needed "good."

Elected property appraiser Ron Alderman, a Democrat, was withering under scrutiny.

Television crews caught him bar-hopping during office hours. Auditors said he failed to assess thousands of properties and had botched assessments, which form the basis for property taxes.

Turner decided to challenge Alderman, a bold move for a political novice and newcomer. He had moved to Tampa from Orlando five years earlier with Vivian and their son.

First, he said the office had an "image problem." Then, as the campaign wore on, he sharpened the rhetoric, calling Alderman an "embarrassment."

"It was, as I recall, a pretty bitter campaign," said Steve Anderson, Alderman's general counsel.

Alderman spent nearly $190,000 trying to keep his job. Turner spent one-sixth of that and won. He quickly brought major change, axing 13 of Alderman's 20 ranking employees and further shrinking staff. He beefed up technology, and his crew went after sham applications for greenbelt exemptions.

He has his detractors.

He comes off as smug to some and scripted to others. Critics consider him overly aggressive in seeking assessments on business.

Opponent James DeMio, a Democrat, said Turner was quick to hike home values during boom years and slow to lower them.

But those are the sorts of things people say when seeking to upset an incumbent.

That's what opponents had on Turner, until now. Now, there are echoes of the 1996 campaign, from the mouth of state Sen. Ronda Storms, who plans to challenge Turner, a fellow Republican, in the Aug. 14 primary.

Storms' fighting words?

"The current property appraiser has embarrassed the office, the party, and himself."

• • •

His brother and sister-in-law don't ask him why marriages fail.

But they remember Vivian, the wife of 20 years. Down to earth. Part of the family.

"You could have killed us with feathers," Wanda said. "They seemed so right together."

It was late 2001 when a process server arrived at the Property Appraiser's Office, asking for Turner. He accepted the divorce papers in the lobby.

From afar, the year that followed appears as difficult as anyone's divorce, except that in the middle of it all, his 83-year-old mother died. Everyone took it hard, Wanda said.

The couple divided up more than $2 million in assets. Turner initially balked at alimony. His wife's attorney scheduled a deposition. It was rescheduled, then canceled.

Turner agreed to pay alimony of $5,250 a month to Vivian.

Voters never noticed.

As his divorce played out, he says, he began a relationship with his HR director, Filippone. His estimates of the timing were clumsy. He gave one date, October 2000, that would have preceded the divorce papers. His deputy reminded him that his divorce started in 2001.

Turner's social life was also picking up outside the office.

He attended South Tampa's annual Frank Sinatra party five months before his divorce was final. He watched Gasparilla 2006 from Don Wallace's Bayshore Boulevard mansion.

Increasingly, the party snapshots included Donna Marino, now his wife.

But Turner admits that even after he married her in July 2007, he was engaged in a raunchy email exchange with Filippone.

She received porn in her email and dozens of links to graphic sex acts online. One of the tamer titles: "Classic German threesome with Teresa."

In his interview with the Times this month, Turner said the exchanges were mutual and consensual, and were sent after hours using personal equipment.

Neither Vivian nor Donna Turner responded to multiple interview requests.

• • •

Alex Sink saw the news reports. She calls Turner's actions "outrageous."

Lawyer Andy Graham saw them too, as did Ken Walters, organizer of the annual Sinatra party. Both are longtime buddies of Turner and his third wife.

"All this kind of took me aback," Walters said. Graham said the publicity made him "a little sick to my stomach."

Walters said Turner has always struck him as honorable and professional. Graham called him mild-mannered and thoughtful.

Walters wonders why anyone seeks public office.

"People are always tearing your life apart," he said.

Three hundred miles north in Albany, Ga., Richard Turner had similar sentiments.

"Is he doing a good job as a politician, doing the property appraiser job? If so, let him be."

He knows what their Navy father would have told Rob: "If you did it, own up to it."

That's exactly what Rob Turner did, when asked by the Times about porn allegations in the complaint filed with the EEOC.

His brother thinks that speaks to his honesty.

Donna Marino Turner offered a show of support on Facebook for her husband of five years.

On Thursday, she installed a new profile photo: a closeup of her smooching with Turner.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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