An era ended in North Florida on Friday.
State Attorney Jerry Blair of Live Oak, best known as the man who prosecuted serial killer Ted Bundy, will not seek re-election in the fall. He let Friday's noon filing deadline pass.
So at year's end, Blair, 62, will leave a job he's had for 30 years. Yet he could have done what many other state employees are doing: double dip.
Four years ago, he entered DROP (the state's deferred retirement option program). Employees who join DROP can stay on the state payroll five years and have their retirement benefits deposited into an account that pays 6.5 percent interest. After five years, the employee is supposed to leave the payroll, collect a lump sum DROP payment and start drawing a monthly retirement check.
Most employees who remain on the job have to forfeit the DROP benefit. But some elected officials and senior managers have taken advantage of a legal loophole to remain on the job after taking 30 days off and forfeiting their monthly retirement benefit for the first 12 months. More than 200 officials — judges, state attorneys, school board members, property appraisers, clerks, county commissioners — have run for re-election, "retired'' and started collecting salary and the lump-sum benefit while remaining in office for years.
One fellow state attorney, Norm Wolfinger of Brevard County, won re-election unopposed last week. Another, Lawson Lamar of Orlando, faces a little-known criminal defense attorney. Lamar "retired'' in 2005, Wolfinger in 2007. Both have been collecting salary and pension benefits ever since.
Blair could have become one of more than 8,000 state employees who are double-dipping. He could have collected his retirement money and won re-election without opposition. It should come as no surprise to those who know him that Blair chose not to take advantage of that legal loophole.
"I never considered retiring and remaining, it was not something I ever thought about," said Blair, who makes about $153,000 as a state attorney. "It sort of violates the spirit of DROP.''
It's not illegal, Blair noted. But well-paid employees who stick around and collect retirement checks and salaries just add to the poor morale among the many state employees who are asked to work very hard for salaries that rarely increase. His state pension will be $101,856 and he'll collect a lump sum benefit of $484,054.
Blair made up his mind four years ago and said so publicly when re-elected for a final term. That was probably a mistake, he concedes. It made him something of a lame duck and prematurely generated a contest to replace him. Three of his former assistants are vying for the post.
But Blair has no regrets except for the usual ones. He's being asked to do more and more with less. The money is so tight this year that the state's top prosecutors, jokingly called "the 20 Chinese war lords'' have canceled their annual meeting as they struggle to keep good assistants and take criminals to court.
"I've been blessed, but it's time to let somebody else have it,'' Blair said last week as he talked about his decision to leave. "It's better to leave and have people ask why you are leaving than to stay and have them ask why you are still here.''
Blair was a small-town prosecutor who became a big player on the state's criminal justice stage. It wasn't just Ted Bundy who brought him fame; he often appeared before legislative committees supporting prosecutors and was frequently appointed by governors to travel to other circuits and handle controversial cases: crooked sheriffs, bad judges, all kinds of cases.
He also was on hand to watch Bundy die in the electric chair in 1989 for the murder of 12-year-old Kimberly Leach in 1978. Blair wishes it hadn't taken so long. Bundy was implicated in the deaths of at least 30 women, possibly 50. He died without disclosing all of the details.
The 3rd Circuit was Blair's domain. It includes Dixie, Taylor, Columbia, Hamilton, Suwannee, Lafayette and Madison counties — an area more than twice as big as Rhode Island.
I met Blair back in 1981 when I was writing about drug smugglers who were dominating Dixie and Taylor counties. No one was more frustrated than Blair when a majority of the county commissioners in Dixie County traveled to a neighboring county in support of a smuggler who was being sentenced to jail. The commissioners actually said it would pose an economic threat to the county if the judge sent convicted smuggler Floyd "Bubba'' Capo to jail.
The judge didn't agree and sent Capo to jail anyway. The commissioners went home and continued governing the county, growing red-faced only when the Times picked up a copy of the court transcript and quoted them. They apparently weren't smart enough to realize that a court reporter sitting at the front of the courtroom was recording their testimony.
Blair had no illusions about the impact of drug smuggling on his counties and was smart enough and humble enough to encourage federal prosecutors to step in and deal with the problem. Before they were through, more than 250 people, including some public officials and law enforcement officers, had been sentenced to federal prison.
Blair also handled a few of the drug cases in state court and became the envy of other prosecutors when the smugglers picketed him outside the Taylor County Courthouse. Former Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney James T. Russell wanted to know how he could get the same treatment.
I'm sure there were days when Blair fervently hoped I'd lose interest in his circuit and go back to the Tampa Bay area or Tallahassee, but he kept his sense of humor, noting only that he hoped I didn't get shot in his circuit "because it would take too long to question the suspects.''
Always quotable. Always direct. A Florida native who never outgrew his roots, never stopped dispensing justice and never hesitated to criticize those who failed to do the right thing.
Lucy Morgan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.