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Pinellas sheriff candidate Scott Swope has shifting views on policy

CLEARWATER — The Aug. 7 email message expressed a remarkably tolerant view of drug use, even by the standards of its recipient, an advocate of pot legalization who sells sex toys and ceramic pipes.

The sender said adults should be free to use not only marijuana, but controversial substances like kratom — a mood-altering herb outlawed in Thailand but increasingly popular in the United States — and "bath salts," a generic term for potent cocktails of synthetic drugs sold by convenience stores in Florida.

The email's author is not a prominent advocate for drug legalization. He is a major party's candidate seeking to lead Pinellas County's biggest law enforcement agency.

"I think the purchase or possession of any of these things (cannabis, kratom, bath salts) by minors should not be allowed," Scott Swope, the Democrat running for Pinellas sheriff, wrote to Randy Heine, a Pinellas Park smoke shop owner who thinks marijuana should be legal. "Adults, however, should be free to do what they want as long as they aren't harming anyone else."

It was a striking stance, especially in light of recent efforts by the Sheriff's Office and other law enforcement agencies to crack down on synthetic drugs, which are purchased for a "legal high" but can cause hallucinations, violent outbursts and death.

Swope later backed away from his statements to Heine, saying he had meant that adults using organic substances like kratom and marijuana should not be a focus of sheriff's deputies. "My sentence structure could have been better," he said. "My primary point was that all kinds of drugs need to be kept out of the hands of children."

The inconsistency is in some ways emblematic of a candidate whose policy views and personal history show a series of evolutions and contradictions.

A former Republican, the 43-year-old Palm Harbor resident is now a Democrat running in a race traditionally dominated by the GOP. During the current campaign, some of his positions have changed. On other policy matters, he has not taken a clear stance.

Earlier this year, Swope said he would do away with the Pinellas Safe Harbor homeless shelter, which is run by the Sheriff's Office, if elected. Now he says he would just scale it back. He has not made up his mind about Florida's notorious Stand Your Ground self-defense law and says he doesn't have strong opinions about possible legislation permitting the open carry of firearms, which other county sheriffs have opposed.

Swope's shifts and agnosticism on the issues are evidence of indecisiveness or pandering, said Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Swope's opponent.

"Man up. Come out and let people know what you're all about. Let them make a decision," Gualtieri said. "There's been a waffling, and a changing of positions, and it's very noticeable."

Swope acknowledged that some of his views have evolved as he has learned more. But he denied that he's unwilling to take strong stances based on his beliefs.

"I'm certainly not pandering, and I don't think I'm waffling, either," he said. "I've said what my positions are."

When it comes to Safe Harbor, Swope said, he has become convinced that a shelter for homeless offenders is good in concept but has been implemented in a way that is too expensive. Open carry, he said, is a matter for the state Legislature, not the sheriff.

'Very methodical, very smart'

Politicians often tread a fine line between flip-flopping and thoughtful pragmatism. Swope, a personal injury lawyer who has been a traffic court magistrate and a Pinellas sheriff's deputy, is soft spoken and conveys a cerebral approach not unlike that of his opponent. But while Gualtieri harnesses numbers and facts to support aggressive arguments about where the Sheriff's Office should be headed, Swope discusses policy in a dispassionate key, frequently conceding to different views. Where Gualtieri is prosecutorial, Swope can be professorial.

"He's going to work with people," said Heine, a former candidate for sheriff who dropped out to support Swope because he was impressed by his debate performances.

Swope attended Largo High School and went to work as a dispatcher for the Largo Police Department after graduation. He then joined the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, working as a patrol deputy and traffic homicide investigator. In addition to that full-time work, he squeezed in four days of classes each week at the University of South Florida, where he obtained a finance degree in 1994.

"He loved being a traffic homicide investigator," recalled his ex-wife, Stephanie Swope. "Scott was very, very good at what he did. Scott is very methodical. He's very smart."

After six years, Swope left the agency to attend law school at the University of Florida. He graduated in 1997 and became a personal injury attorney, founding his own firm in 2001. The business grew as Swope took on other employees and partners, and eventually the firm moved into its own building on Sunset Point Road in Clearwater.

Schiavo case changed politics

Meanwhile, Swope participated in a case that he said dramatically altered his personal politics: that of Terri Schiavo, the woman in a vegetative state who became a national cause celebre in debates over end-of-life care. Swope was part of a team of lawyers working on behalf of her husband, Michael, who said she would not have wished to be kept alive in her condition.

Courts agreed, but Republican politicians at the state and federal levels sought to intervene and keep Terri alive. Swope said the case opened his eyes to the influence extremists had gained in setting the GOP agenda on social issues.

"To me it was such an intrusion — a blatantly unconstitutional intrusion — that it was no longer the party I grew up with," he said. "When I was a Republican, I referred to myself as a liberal Republican. Now that I'm a Democrat, I refer to myself as a conservative Democrat."

Swope displayed calm and integrity during the Schiavo case, said Deborah Bushnell, one of Michael Schiavo's attorneys. "He's very sensitive to ethical issues, and really tries to do the right thing."

Such sentiments aren't shared by some of Swope's former law partners, however. For years, Swope and the partners, Harry Hale and David Paulsen, have been mired in a lawsuit over Swope's contentious 2008 departure from the firm. According to court documents, that departure coincided with the dismissal of a co-worker, at the time named Margaret Bright, now Margaret Swope, his wife.

Conflict and debt

Swope said he and his then-wife, Stephanie, decided to divorce in the spring of 2008, and the romantic relationship with Margaret didn't begin until June. Swope said his law partners fired her and suspended him after they learned of the relationship. He said they then set about trying to deprive him of his clients.

Alan Gross, an attorney who represented Swope's former partners in the suit, completely denied Swope's version.

"He was never suspended," Gross said. "He was never fired. He quit."

Gross said the partners counseled him to take time off to think about his decision to end his marriage.

"These were friends. These were not just businesspeople," Gross said. "They basically said to him, just as friends, 'Maybe you ought to take some time, get yourself together, think about what you're doing here.'"

The litigation continues. Also pending is a foreclosure complaint against Swope, his old partners and the law firm by Regions Bank, which is seeking to recover close to $1 million in mortgage and other loans.

Critics say the debts contrast with Swope's campaign trail claims that he possesses financial savvy that would help him run the Sheriff's Office.

Swope said he hopes his policy views, rather than the peccadilloes of his personal and professional history, will be what voters consider at the polls on Nov. 6.

"I would like to think that the voters will base their decision upon the ideas that I have on how the Sheriff's Office should run, regardless of the fact that I've been divorced or involved in litigation with my former law partners," he said.

Peter Jamison can be reached at pjamison@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4157.

Pinellas sheriff candidate Scott Swope has shifting views on policy 10/18/12 [Last modified: Thursday, October 18, 2012 12:28am]
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