Friday, November 24, 2017
Politics

Rice seizes on scandal in Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to boost his election bid

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Former Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice's voice comes across like a country friend, slow and easy.

His re-emergence in county politics has been just the opposite.

Five years out of public life, Rice has thundered back by challenging Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, whom the governor appointed over Rice last year when Jim Coats retired.

With Coats' backing, Gualtieri lined up big-name endorsements to help him stand out in a six-candidate field. But fellow Republican Rice has outdone him with fundraising — $205,500 to $122,700 — by tapping longtime supporters to dot the county with signs and stage fundraisers.

"Out of all the campaigns I've been through, I feel as good about this one as any," said Rice, who served 16 years as sheriff.

Now, turmoil in the Sheriff's Office threatens to thwart Gualtieri's chief advantage of being the incumbent.

Narcotics unit officers are accused of bending rules in order to investigate cases. The violations have imperiled criminal cases involving marijuana grow houses. Internal affairs investigators are working overtime.

All this as Rice reminds voters that he beat an incumbent in 1988 and cleaned up a then-scandal-plagued agency.

Rice, 67, also has seized on Gualtieri's comment that this recent turmoil started before he took over as sheriff in November. Gualtieri had been chief deputy before that.

"Everywhere he goes, everywhere he speaks, he takes credit for running the Sheriff's Office since 2008, the day-to-day operations," Rice said, calling Gualtieri "disingenuous."

"What's the first thing he does when there's a little scandal? … Blaming Coats."

Rice said he would conduct an audit and freeze funds used by the narcotics unit, and refer to the State Attorney's Office an incident over $200 in sheriff's funds that went unpaid to a confidential informant. Gualtieri already has said a criminal case would be pursued.

Gualtieri expressed frustration that his attempts to root out problems in the narcotics unit have been aggravated by defense lawyers who are supporting Rice and politicizing what should be a joint effort to improve the agency.

Many of the recent allegations — like a detective keeping money intended for a confidential informant and others forging paperwork — came to light internally by the chain of command initiating investigations.

But some allegations — like a detective posing as a Progress Energy employee and detectives improperly accessing Progress Energy records — came to light because defense lawyers tipped off the Tampa Bay Times. Gualtieri said that hampers his ability to get the first crack at confronting wrongdoers.

"I want to get to the bottom of this and root it all out and deal with it effectively and hold people accountable,'' Gualtieri said. "If there is wrongdoing, why don't they come to me?''

The defense lawyers involved who support Rice include Douglas de Vlaming and John Trevena, as well as private investigator Mike Peasley. The men have donated at least $400, combined, to Rice's election bid, campaign finance reports show.

Overall, Rice raised at least $21,700 from the legal community through the end of 2011, reports show. Gualtieri, 51, a lawyer, received $7,000.

"You can tell him we just got tired of all the sweeping and the lies. I don't give a rip who the next sheriff is as long as I can trust him," de Vlaming said in an e-mail to the Times.

Supporters, such as Pinellas Commissioner Susan Latvala, say Gualtieri has taken the right approach.

But the cases risk complicating Gualtieri's efforts to become better known before the Aug. 14 primary. The duties of sheriff take up a lot of time.

"His time constraints could potentially be an issue," said supporter Nick DiCeglie, vice chair of the Pinellas Republicans' Ivory Club fund-raising group.

The imbroglio also has obscured a question: What's driving Rice to come back? Rice has yet to fully explain the ambitions that triggered his return. Instead, he cites unhappy deputies and "a huge public outcry for me to come back."

Rice, also a lawyer, hasn't run in a competitive campaign since 2000. A bid for attorney general died before Election Day in 2006. His last stint in politics, two years in the Florida House, ended that year with little acclaim except for co-authoring the Jessica Lunsford law on sexual offenders.

"It wasn't my cup of tea," he said.

After leaving politics, Rice went to work for Barry Cohen's law firm in Tampa, a commute he's still not fond of.

He could easily drift off into an easy life if he so chose. He has an $8,900 monthly state pension — a benefit he said he will not forsake if he wins the race and the sheriff's $158,000 salary. He worked 35 years to earn it, he said. Coats also took a pension and salary as sheriff; it's been dubbed "double dipping."

"Really, it's not double dipping because there's got to be a sheriff and the sheriff's got to get paid no matter who it is," Rice said.

Rice insisted he never retired from being sheriff — he just kept a promise to follow term limits that are no longer in effect.

"I think he had a desire to serve, and I think when you have a desire to serve, you never run out of that," said former St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker, a backer.

While Rice talked about running for state Senate last year, friends say being sheriff has stayed in his heart. It came up when Rice and Cohen discussed cases involving law enforcement.

"Do you want to be sheriff again, Everett?" Cohen asked.

Rice would get a smile on his face.

Times staff writer Stephen Nohlgren contributed to this report.

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