ST. PETE BEACH — The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office is investigating approximately $37,000 believed to be missing from American Legion Post 305, a loss that involves former and present city officials.
"Our detectives are looking into this to make sure there has been no criminal activity," Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Cpl. Dan DiFrancesco said.
The investigation is focused on former mayor and Post Commander Mike Finnerty and his wife, sitting City Commissioner Terri Finnerty, who DiFrancesco described as "players" in the investigation.
DiFrancesco stressed that although the case is "open and active," no charges have been filed.
Both Finnertys strongly deny any wrongdoing and have hired a lawyer who has threatened the Legion post with legal action for "defamation and/or slander."
On Oct. 20, Raymond Perez, the Legion’s 16th District Commander, informed Mike Finnerty that both he and his wife would be barred from the St. Pete Beach post until a formal hearing on multiple allegations of "failure to properly administer your duties," and misconduct ranging from "misappropriation of funds" to "conduct unbecoming an officer."
As commander, Finnerty was responsible for the daily operations and financial management of the post, at 6999 Gulf Blvd.
Terri Finnerty was a contract employee and served as the post’s lounge manager.
The hearing, which the Legion calls a "trial," is scheduled for Nov. 7 at the post. It is not a legal proceeding but could result in the Finnertys being permanently expelled from the American Legion.
All the allegations were signed by post executive board members Thomas de Yampert and Chuck Weber, Sergeant at Arms Jack Helmintoller, Adjutant Bruce Krause, Chaplain Bill Howard, and Legion member John Barnett.
Last week, de Yampert spoke at an open membership meeting called to discuss "recent activity" at the post.
He explained that at the request of the local post’s executive board, the 16th District of the American Legion, which oversees Legion posts in Pinellas County and southern Pasco County, will conduct the hearing and select the people who will serve on the jury.
Those jurors, who will be drawn from outside the district, will judge the validity of the charges and recommend subsequent actions. Under Legion rules, that verdict and recommendations must be ratified or modified by the local post membership, de Yampert explained.
The primary charge against Mike Finnerty involves a "discrepancy" in the amount of money generated from two on-site pull-tab game machines registered on the machines and deposited into the post’s bank account.
De Yampert insisted "no one at this post has ever accused anyone of wrongdoing or theft," and described the situation as a "financial anomaly."
De Yampert said a formal forensic audit is under way to determine how the missing money might be accounted for and why the post amassed an $8,000 credit card bill.
Most of the other 10 allegations made against Finnerty involved failure to follow various post rules. He also was specifically charged with allowing his wife to improperly sign checks and IRS reporting forms and with "conduct unbecoming an officer" involving drunkenness, threatening and swearing at employees and guests.
Attorney Christopher Sierra described the actions against Finnerty as a "kangaroo court" and "Mickey Mouse Club" that has failed to follow its own rules.
He said de Yampert is retaliating for previous disciplinary actions Finnerty took against him.
"I never did anything wrong. And my wife is as innocent as the newborn snow," Finnerty said.
Harry Metz, a Legion member and former city commissioner, defended the Finnertys, adding that as judge advocate for the local post, he was never consulted when de Yampert and the others took their allegations to the Legion’s district officers.