Thursday, December 14, 2017
Opinion

Carlton: E.J. Salcines' story of politics and redemption

The storied story of E.J. Salcines — the courthouse success, the crushing defeat, the resurrection so complete you could even call it redemption — is one for the book on Tampa politics.

He has been a powerful Latin statesman in this town, a son of West Tampa who never met a stranger and who, for 16 years, was Hillsborough County's top prosecutor. But in the 1980s, he faced a federal investigation by then-U.S. Attorney Bob Merkle on allegations of bribe taking and case fixing. It was a moment for Tampa, old guard and new.

All these years later, some still take sides: Merkle was too ambitious, too determined to see what he wanted to see and not what wasn't there. Merkle didn't get Tampa. Merkle was called "Mad Dog" for a reason.

Or Merkle was right.

The investigation went on nearly three years. ("Not even my proctologist knows me as well as I've been examined," Salcines would later say.) He famously took the Fifth on the advice of his attorney, Barry Cohen. Salcines says today under the same circumstances — dealing with a "persecutor," not a prosecutor, as he puts it — he would do it again.

He was never indicted for anything, but a politician taking the Fifth did not play well with voters. In 1984, the Democrat was denied re-election by Republican federal prosecutor and white-hat Bill James.

You might have thought Salcines would hang out a shingle, eke out a modest living in Tampa's legal community and fade from the public eye, given that potential perpetual cloud above him. But then, you wouldn't know E.J. Salcines. Or Tampa.

He stayed at the heart of things that mattered in West Tampa and Ybor City. He was Hispanic man of the year. He sent so many locals off to his alma mater in Houston that South Texas College of Law is known here as EJU. For many years, he taught about prosecuting at Northwestern University.

Salcines made big headlines fighting off a violent gang robbery in the driveway of his West Tampa home as he was returning from dinner with his wife and a friend. There was a box-cutter knife, but the pistol miraculously jammed. "He's fixable," the sheriff drawled to reporters about Salcines' injuries that night.

Did I mention resurrection?

He had tried to become a federal or appeals court judge. Then, in 1998, at the age of 59, Salcines was named by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles to a judgeship on the 2nd District Court of Appeal. ("It's a shame," was all Merkle would say at the time.) Salcines retired from the bench when he turned 70 — only, as he put it, because "the calendar says I must."

And this week came full circle for a man once drummed out of a career as a prosecutor: a lifetime achievement award from the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association. A standing ovation. It "floored me," said Salcines, 76. "It was very gratifying and humbling."

Today, he lectures at Stetson University's law school and the Tampa Bay History Center. When we talk about those days in the 1980s, he brings up McCarthyism and the Innocence Project.

"It was a very interesting period," says a man redeemed. "A dark period." And on that piece of Tampa history, at least, everyone can agree.

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