Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Politics

Pinellas sheriff candidate Rice praised for affable personality, but critics call him vague on specifics

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Ask supporters about former Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice, and you'll hear about his hands-off leadership style. He empowers and validates those beneath him, admirers say. He brings people together to make big decisions.

"He's very strong on collaboration," said former St. Petersburg College President Carl Kuttler, who worked with Rice during the 16 years he served as sheriff and plans to vote for him in the Aug. 14 Republican primary. "He's not a heavy-handed person at all."

With his shock of white hair, piercing blue eyes and Virginia drawl, Rice, 67, embodies a certain idea of Southern gentility.

But those skeptical of his effort to reclaim his old job from Sheriff Bob Gualtieri see weaknesses beneath the surface. They say Rice's light-on-detail appeals to integrity in policing mask an ignorance of the changing nature of law enforcement.

"He has no plan for the future," Gualtieri said at a recent campaign event. "All he's talking about is the past."

Some hallmarks of Rice's tenure as sheriff are at odds with current financial and political realities. During his four terms as sheriff, ending in 2004, Pinellas' largest law enforcement agency was flush. The budget grew by $151 million dollars between 1989 and 2005. By contrast, over the last four years, the agency's spending has shrunk by $72 million.

"It's a different organization now than when Everett was there," said former Sheriff Jim Coats, who earlier served as Rice's chief deputy and has endorsed Gualtieri. Then, "the sheriff got whatever he asked for, because the funding was there."

Citing low deputy morale and a scandal in the narcotics unit, Rice has made change a centerpiece of his campaign. Yet when pressed on what reforms he would institute, he said that after eight years away, he can't offer ideas without better knowledge of the department's workings.

"I don't know exactly what they're doing now," he said.

While Rice acknowledges his ignorance of how the Sheriff's Office is doing business, he says he can restore what he describes as lost public trust in the agency.

"The credibility of the Sheriff's Office is shot, and the only way to fix that is to change the leadership," he said. "Leadership qualities, they don't change, and they don't expire with time."

• • •

A native of Roanoke, Va., Rice joined the Pinellas agency at age 23 after serving four years in the Merchant Marine. He worked there for the next 18 years, rising to chief of detectives.

During that time he received a B.A. in criminal justice from the University of South Florida and, in 1984, a J.D. from Stetson University College of Law. In 1985, Rice left police work for private law practice.

In 1988, he challenged Pinellas Sheriff Gerry Coleman, whose department was dogged by complaints of corruption and brutality. Rice, running as a reformer, won. He was re-elected three more times before stepping down in 2004.

The overarching theme of his administration, Rice says, was modernization of the Sheriff's Office. He adopted up-to-date forensics and set up rehabilitation programs at the jail. He was instrumental in creating a civil service board that provided due process in the disciplining and firing of employees. He preferred suits to a uniform and enjoyed the esteem of voters and fellow elected officials.

There was another theme to Rice's time in office: growth.

County tax revenues were buoyed by a swelling population and rising property values, and Sheriff's Office staffing grew apace. The department's annual budget rose from $73 million in 1989 to $224 million in 2005, the last year for which Rice crafted a budget. Adjusted for inflation, spending roughly doubled on his watch. It was a fiscally permissive environment that Pinellas County Commissioner Nancy Bostock, who has endorsed Gualtieri, says won't reappear any time soon. "We are going to maintain tight budgets," she said. "We don't have a choice in this economy."

The same year Rice stepped down as sheriff, the Treasure Island resident ran unopposed for the state Legislature. He served a single, uneventful term in the House of Representatives. He said his most significant accomplishment as a lawmaker was helping author the Jessica Lunsford Act, which increased penalties for sex offenders.

While involved in state politics, Rice was known as a moderate. But he has given signs of a rightward drift in the current election season.

He has been endorsed in the sheriff's race by Richard Mack, an Arizona antigovernment activist who is a favorite on the tea party speaking circuit. Rice refuses to confirm or deny that President Barack Obama is a U.S. citizen, a stance that might appeal to "birther" conspiracy theorists on the far-right fringe.

Rice said he enjoyed his time in Tallahassee, but chafed against the limits of legislators' power. After his term ended, he went to work for the law firm of Barry Cohen, a prominent Tampa litigator. Rice's responsibilities there have primarily involved client intake and investigating cases, rather than trial work.

"His greatest strength was his ability to analyze a problem — to separate all the bulls---, if you will, and get right to the heart of it," Cohen said.

He said he was also impressed by the respect that Rice, a longtime cop, had for due process in criminal cases.

It's an attitude that has driven his campaign. Earlier this year, a handful of Pinellas narcotics detectives were accused of trespassing and lying to obtain search warrants for marijuana grow houses. The allegations eventually led to three deputies resigning and one being fired.

The scandal was a stain on the administrations of both Coats and Gualtieri, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to lead the Sheriff's Office when Coats stepped down in November. (Gualtieri had previously served as Coats' chief deputy.) Rice said the scandal would not have happened on his watch.

"To me, it's a cultural thing," Rice said. "Why did the deputies think they could get away with these things?"

Yet he was vague when questioned about how he would do things differently.

"Lead by example," he said. "Let people do their jobs."

• • •

Rice has been endorsed by two prominent police unions — the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association, which represents Pinellas deputies, and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 43. Some of that support could stem from Rice's promises to give deputies a raise if elected. Agency employees have had no wage increases for years because of revenue shortfalls.

Gualtieri said he would like to give deputies a one-time raise in the near future, but acknowledges he has not yet freed up the money to do it. While tax revenues have picked up somewhat, Pinellas County is still facing a $25 million deficit this year.

At a debate in Clearwater this week, Rice was more assertive.

"Giving deputies and the other employees a raise is the number-one priority, and I would find the money," he said.

Asked where the funding would come from, Rice said he would need time to study the sheriff's budget before getting specific.

Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.

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