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Pinellas gets snubbed again for federal trial

Published Oct. 12, 2005

St. Petersburg has lost a chance to host another high-profile federal trial, a practice local officials hoped would add weight to their argument for a U.S. courthouse in Pinellas.

Last week, accused St. Petersburg cocaine kingpin Romeo Mathis opted to be tried in Tampa. Because federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Mathis, he could have demanded to be tried in the county where the alleged crime occurred. But Mathis took an oath and then agreed to waive that right.

That might have been St. Petersburg's last big chance to hold federal trials. Last year, visiting federal judges heard several cases at the St. Petersburg courthouse, including the much-publicized trial of Tampa City Council member Perry Harvey. He was acquitted of charges that he misused funds from the dock workers' union he heads.

But this year, the U.S. Government Services Administration has completed two new courtrooms on the 12th floor of the Timberlake Annex in downtown Tampa. Visiting federal judges are expected to hear overflow trials there, not in St. Petersburg.

Jack Helinger, a St. Petersburg lawyer who led efforts to get a satellite federal courthouse built there, said the Mathis case is "an absolute classic example of why people would be served having federal court on both sides of the bay."

The Mathis case and two related cases involve numerous defendants and witnesses, nearly all of whom live in Pinellas, Helinger said. Not to mention that the community Mathis is accused of controlling with drug crime is St. Petersburg.

"Our offer remains open. All of the officials in Pinellas would cooperate fully and satisfy any federal court needs," Helinger said. "But people remain very territorial, and that's unfortunate."

Paul J. Marino, longtime chief counsel to Hillsborough Sheriff Walter Heinrich, has joined the bay area law firm of Fowler, White, Gillen, Boggs, Villareal and Banker.

Marino joined the Sheriff's Office in 1976 and a year later began developing a specialized expertise that Fowler, White now hopes to market to other governments and public safety agencies.

In 1977, Marino created a self-insurance plan for the Sheriff's Office for protection against professional liability claims.

The program has saved the Sheriff's Office millions of dollars over the years, Marino said. Last spring, he began applying the same self-insurance management techniques to auto coverage and this month to workers' compensation.

Marino will be part of the business litigation department at Fowler, White, which has offices in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Fort Myers and Tallahassee.

David Farash has become interim chief counsel to Heinrich, who is not seeking re-election this year.