ST. PETERSBURG — After a four-month investigation, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Friday that his office would not criminally charge local blogger and political consultant Peter Schorsch.
A 2½-year-old dormant inquiry into Schorsch was renewed in November after the Tampa Bay Times interviewed five people active in politics who said that Schorsch, 38, had tried to pressure them for hundreds or thousands of dollars in exchange for good stories or the deletion of bad ones on his website.
At the time, Schorsch vehemently denied having a "quid pro quo" relationship with clients but acknowledged offering to remove negative content from saintpetersblog.com in exchange for money.
He declined to comment Friday, instead posting a statement on his site attributed to his attorney, Bruce Denson: "Mr. Schorsch has maintained his innocence from the onset. We have maintained that just because political speech sometimes gets contentious, it does not rise to anywhere near the level described by Mr. Schorsch's detractors."
The Sheriff's Office said Schorsch declined to speak to detectives for the investigation.
The case initially centered on accusations made by Michael Pinson, a Republican activist whom Schorsch has frequently criticized and mocked online. Late last year, Pinson supplied a contract to the Tampa Bay Times that Schorsch presented him in 2012, requesting that Pinson pay $3,200 for the blogger to delete all references to Pinson from his websites — and to write nothing more about him for the following three years.
Schorsch told the Times his attorney drew up the contract but said it was at Pinson's request. Schorsch said Pinson repeatedly harassed him and his family.
The sheriff said no crime occurred because Pinson had negotiated with Schorsch's attorney Paul Phillips instead of directly with Schorsch, and because Pinson initiated the conversation about paying for the blogger to stop targeting him.
Just because Schorsch offered a price and signed the contract did not mean he had extorted Pinson, Gualtieri said.
Reached Friday, Pinson maintained that Phillips was the first to bring up money, not him. Pinson said he suggested the contract to have proof of the deal.
"That's why I wanted all this stuff in writing," he said.
Phillips did not respond to an email requesting comments.
Investigators also interviewed David McKalip, a neurosurgeon who lost a bid for St. Petersburg City Council last year. McKalip had shared with the Times an email exchange from January 2012 in which Schorsch asked McKalip if he planned to renew his ad subscription. McKalip complained about some unfair stories Schorsch had written.
"If you want to send me a list of stories you find objectionable, I'll take them down," Schorsch responded, "so long as you renew your ad package."
Investigators said there was an indication of a quid pro quo demand by Schorsch, "which might form the basis of an extortion charge, (but) McKalip refused to further participate in the investigation."
McKalip called that a "complete falsehood." He said he showed investigators every email exchange he had with Schorsch. "I asked them if they thought this was worthy of pressing charges, and they said no," McKalip said. "They told me in the end they didn't think it would go very far."
Otherwise, McKalip said, he would have considered filing a complaint.
The sheriff said he didn't know whether investigators reviewed the emails but insisted they wouldn't have tried to influence McKalip's decision.
Still, the doctor, an ardent Libertarian, did acknowledge that he asked investigators to get a subpoena if they wanted copies of the messages.
Investigators also interviewed others quoted in the Times story, including Pinellas County commissioners Janet Long and Ken Welch and former state Rep. Frank Farkas.
"Commissioners Long and Welch stated in separate interviews that Schorsch's 'method of operation' was to imply, but not actually threaten that he would post negative articles if candidates did not purchase advertising on his blog," the report stated.
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]