Living in Florida is an adventure, and not just because of the hurricanes, lightning, sinkholes, shark attacks and nudist resorts. A big part of what makes living here so — interesting? is that the right word? — is knowing that much of what you see isn't real.
We've got pretend mermaids, a phony Fountain of Youth and, off Interstate 4, a Jurassic Park full of fake dinosaurs. One of our biggest parties, Gasparilla, celebrates a pirate who didn't exist. In the Keys, you drive on the Seven Mile Bridge, which is actually about six miles long, to get to the Southernmost Point in the United States, which is actually just the southernmost point civilians can get to.
The fakery isn't confined to our tourist attractions. We lead the nation in Medicare, mortgage and insurance fraud. As a 2015 Associated Press story put it, Florida has "fake Jamaican lotteries, false marriages for immigration purposes, mediocre seafood marketed as better seafood … even foreign substandard cheese passed off as domestic top shelf."
Our fraudsters often push the limits of believability. Take the trio of West Palm Beach con men who, in 2011, persuaded some elderly folks that government rules required them to use only their company's "special" toilet paper for their septic tanks. The victims bought a 70-year supply.
I mention this because of the case of Sidney C. Hines, 67, a New Port Richey resident who last month pleaded guilty in Tampa to a rather odd federal crime:
Impersonating a U.S. senator.
You might wonder why anyone would impersonate a member of Congress, that do-nothing deliberative body that went on vacation rather than help Florida with its Zika crisis. But that wasn't the strangest thing about the crime.
The strangest thing was the senator impersonated was neither of the gents representing Florida, Bill "Did-I-Mention-I Flew-On-the-Space-Shuttle-30-Years-Ago?" Nelson or Marco "Please-Re-elect-Me-To-That-Job-I-Don't-Like" Rubio.
No, it was the senior senator from Illinois, Richard "Dick" Durbin.
Sen. Durbin and Mr. Hines are both white guys. Other than that, the resemblance is, shall we say, elusive.
Hines' indictment doesn't explain why Hines impersonated Durbin. It just says he took out a small loan to stave off foreclosure, then in 2014, he called the Texas company collecting the payments, pretended to be Durbin and told it the loan had been paid. The company, ClearSpring Loan Services, tape-recorded the call "for quality assurance" — evidence that the "senator" sounded exactly like the debtor.
So I called Hines and asked him: Why pick on Dick Durbin?
Hines told me that he's originally from Illinois, as is Durbin. He said he even met Durbin once years ago. But the main reason he picked Durbin is "because he's very powerful. He's on the (Senate) Appropriations Committee."
He thought Durbin's stature might persuade ClearSpring to leave him alone.
Hines says he'd sent ClearSpring letters showing that he'd paid his debt, but the company said it didn't receive them. The company kept calling, demanding its money. Hines got so frustrated, he said, that "I did something stupid. I admit it."
People all over the country have had similar problems with ClearSpring. Instead of pretending to be a politician, though, those other homeowners filed class-action lawsuits.
Hines could get prison time when he's sentenced in December, but he told me what concerns him most is that the publicity has hurt his New Port Richey Community Church and Ministries, which he says he started in 2005. The purpose of the ministry, according to its website, is to find housing and clothes for homeless, disabled veterans, domestic violence victims and runaways.
"I help quite a few veterans," Hines told me. The ministry's Facebook page lists lots of former service members who are grateful for his assistance in finding homes and jobs.
Now, remember what I said about things in Florida not being what they seem? None of the veterans named on that Facebook page could be found using any kind of public records search. Hines has more than a dozen aliases, according to the state Department of Corrections, which lists him as a periodic guest for convictions on grand theft, submitting a phony application for a driver's license, kiting checks and fraudulent use of credit cards.
He did not return multiple follow-up calls about his charity.
I talked to three people well-known for their work with the homeless in Pasco County. Two had never heard of "Dr. Hines," as he's called on the Facebook page.
The third was Dan Campbell, recently retired from Metropolitan Ministries. Hines said on the Facebook page that his ministry is "working with" Campbell. Not true, Campbell told me.
"I talked to him a couple of times," Campbell said. At first Hines sounded legitimate, Campbell said. But then he started talking about having the Air Force bring in planeloads of clothes and food, and "the more I talked to him, everything got more and more fantastic."
Ah, yes, "fantastic." That's the word I was looking for to describe what it's like living in Florida.
Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.