Did the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office drop the ball on the prosecution of former Safety Harbor finance director JoAnne Ryan? The city's mayor seems to think so, and officials in the state attorney's office haven't said anything that reassures the public that they did their job.
Ryan, a trusted veteran city staffer, was fired last August after City Manager Matt Spoor spotted some unusual charges on the city's credit card. Ryan was arrested the following month, accused of making personal charges of more than $15,000 on the city's American Express card.
However, city officials were convinced that the problem went beyond credit card charges and that cash was missing, so they did an internal investigation to examine the books. The internal investigation determined that at least $215,000 had gone missing from the finance department since 2007, according to the city.
Wounded and angry city officials wanted Ryan prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Some were frustrated when they learned last week that Ryan and prosecutors had agreed on a plea deal that allowed Ryan to plead guilty to one count of second-degree grand theft and serve no more than two years in prison. She could receive as little as probation.
"The city provided the state attorney with enough information to have Ms. Ryan charged with first-degree felony grand theft," said Mayor Andy Steingold, a lawyer and former prosecutor.
But when a St. Petersburg Times reporter contacted the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said his investigator told him the case was weak and involved "a lot of going back and forth to City Hall."
"We ended up having to do a lot of legwork to pull the case together. It was very time consuming," Bartlett said.
Bartlett said when Ryan admitted she had taken $70,000 to $80,000, which amounts to second-degree grand theft, that's how his department allowed her to plead.
Unbelievably, Bartlett then acknowledged that his office believes Ryan probably stole more than that.
If Ryan allegedly committed multiple acts of theft over a multi-year time frame, why wasn't she charged with multiple counts? And why did the state attorney bring the case to such a quick close when there was no requirement that it do so?
The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office carries a heavy caseload and has endured budget cuts, so it must be tempted to avoid a substantial investment of investigators' time when dealing with white collar crime. However, when a public official violates the public trust, it is incumbent upon the state attorney to get to the bottom of the case and make sure that the charge reflects the gravity of the crime.