Sunday, May 20, 2018
Politics

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri takes hits for cutting budget, but praised for work ethic

In some ways, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is a consummate law enforcement insider.

The son of an elected district attorney in upstate New York, Gualtieri has been a cop for much of his professional life. He says he was one of those kids obsessed with police work long after its allure wore off for his schoolmates.

His succession to the top of Pinellas County's biggest law enforcement agency was secured with the help of powerful friends. He was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott upon the recommendation of former Sheriff Jim Coats — under whom Gualtieri served as chief deputy — when Coats resigned last year to care for his ailing wife.

But despite his connections and long experience in uniform, Gualtieri, 50, is struggling with an outsider's challenges as he seeks to hold onto office in this year's election.

He is reviled by some deputies as the public face of budget cuts that resulted in hundreds of lost positions as property tax revenue fell with the housing market collapse. As Coats' chief deputy, he restructured the downsized agency, moving many officers from positions where they were content.

Unlike former Sheriff Everett Rice, his opponent in the Aug. 14 Republican primary, Gualtieri did not rise through the ranks at the Sheriff's Office. He left the agency while still a detective to practice law, and returned almost a decade later as general counsel, then chief deputy.

While praised for his work ethic, Gualtieri has an intellectual bent and methodical approach to law enforcement that don't always appear as suited to politics as Rice's easy charm.

"Bob's a smart guy. He works hard. I don't take anything away from him," said retired deputy Tim Ingold, a former union leader who supervised Gualtieri when the sheriff was a narcotics investigator and is now supporting Rice. "I just don't think he's a leader."

Rice has the endorsement of the major union representing Pinellas deputies. He also has the support of powerful backers, such as state Attorney General Pam Bondi and the National Rifle Association.

With $327,000 in his campaign war chest, Rice has a comfortable fundraising lead over Gualtieri, who has $205,000.

Since a Republican has won the sheriff's race in every election since 1980, the primary campaign is being closely watched.

'Studious, Detailed'

Gualtieri grew up in Syracuse, N.Y. His father was Onondaga County District Attorney Frank Gualtieri, chief elected prosecutor of the city and surrounding area. The values and culture of law enforcement, Gualtieri says, were in his blood.

"Always, from the time I was a little kid, I wanted to grow up and be a cop," he said. "I spent my Friday and Saturday nights riding with the cops, as opposed to doing what 16- and 17-year-olds usually do."

After high school, he moved to Pinellas County with his parents. He worked as a detention deputy for the Sheriff's Office, then a Dunedin Police Department patrolman. In 1984, he went back to the Sheriff's Office, first as a patrol deputy, then as a detective assigned to drug investigations.

Street-level narcotics cops sometimes cultivate a cowboy image. Not Gualtieri. He developed an expertise in wiretaps and drug conspiracy investigations — a cerebral realm of police work that is more about crafting lengthy affidavits and building data-heavy cases than exciting undercover work.

U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill of the Middle District of Florida worked with Gualtieri during his days as a narcotics detective. "Straight shooter" is how he describes the sheriff.

"I have never seen Bob take a shortcut," O'Neill said. "He follows the evidence."

Gualtieri worked under his current opponent, Rice, for 10 of his roughly 15 years at the Sheriff's Office the second time around. He said he occasionally debriefed Rice, then the elected sheriff, on his work. He described the relationship as "professional" and "courteous," but said they did not develop a personal bond or socialize outside of work.

Between shifts, Gualtieri took classes for a bachelor's degree in American Studies at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. In 1998, he left the Sheriff's Office and attended Stetson University College of Law.

After graduating, he went to work in 2003 for Ford Harrison, a national firm that specializes in labor law and has an office in Tampa.

He had been in private practice three years when he got a call from Coats, then the Pinellas sheriff.

Breaking the mold

Coats needed a new general counsel, and Gualtieri, who had impressed him during his time at the Sheriff's Office, was his choice. By 2008, Coats had named Gualtieri his chief deputy, overseeing day-to-day operations.

Gualtieri was immediately put in charge of the most drastic downsizing in the department's recent history. Between 2008 and 2012, the Pinellas sheriff's budget shrank from $278 million to $206 million. It was a loss of resources that dictated unprecedented cuts, and Coats relied on Gualtieri to wield the scalpel.

The downsizing was accomplished without layoffs. Deputies were either hired by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office or moved to non-sworn positions.

Still, Gualtieri acknowledges in retrospect that some of the decisions might not have been good ones. In the case of the agency's Internal Affairs division, he said the cuts went too deep.

Problems with the unit only became apparent this spring, when the Times reported that IA investigators had done a slipshod job of looking into complaints that a few narcotics deputies trespassed and lied to obtain search warrants for marijuana grow houses.

"I cut it too low," Gualtieri said of the IA division. "Things weren't done properly, and I accept responsibility for that, in that I made the decision to cut that."

Questions of morale

The broader cuts at the agency have carried a political cost. The Suncoast Police Benevolent Association, which represents sheriff's deputies in collective bargaining, recently voted to endorse Rice over Gualtieri.

"I think a significant amount of (members) are unhappy with Bob, but I think some of them are unhappy with him for things he can't control, like the budget," said PBA president Mark Marland, a St. Petersburg Police Department employee. He added that the union leadership's experience negotiating with Gualtieri has been "very good."

Gualtieri pointed to an internal survey indicating that 63 percent of employees believe morale at the Sheriff's Office is "good" or "very good." But he acknowledges there are still deputies who resent him for the changes that accompanied the budget crunch.

"We had to break the mold," he said. "There are still people around here who don't like it, and they blame me for it. So be it."

Gualtieri's style is distinctly his own. Call him an unlikely outsider — a passionate cop whose passion is often less evident than his rigor.

It's a style that has brought him success as a drug sleuth and cutter-in-chief of a swollen sheriff's budget. With the August primary approaching, he'll soon know how far it gets him in politics.

Staff writer Stephen Nohlgren contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.

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