When Pinellas County holds contested elections, voters can expect candidates to grumble about unscrupulous opponents tampering with their campaign signs.
But rarely do such spats involve judicial candidates _ who profess to prize decorum. Rarely do witnesses claim they saw the mischievous deed in progress.
Now, the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office is investigating a criminal complaint that county judge candidate Mary Jean McAllister uprooted a Sylvia Barr sign and tossed it into the bushes in September on primary election day.
The person complaining, who has close personal ties to Barr, told police in an affidavit that the sign vandal sped off in a white car. The car's license tag _ as provided by the witness _ seems to lead to McAllister.
In a letter, McAllister declined to comment for this story, saying she refuses "to be involved in muckraking concerning other judicial candidates."
A St. Petersburg lawyer, she finished first and Barr finished last in the three-way primary. The second-place candidate, Clearwater attorney Paul Levine, faces a runoff with McAllister on Nov. 3.
Levine's camp is making a dirty-tricks allegation of its own.
According to Ellen King-Levine, McAllister pulled up a Levine sign at a north county polling place about 2:30 p.m. on election day.
"I couldn't believe my eyes," said King-Levine in an interview. "It was not as if this were an overzealous campaign supporter. This was the candidate herself."
King-Levine, a Dunedin chiropractor, is Paul Levine's sister. She didn't report McAllister's alleged sign mischief to the police, she said, because her candidate brother advised against it.
King-Levine said she had just driven away from the poll at Cypress Woods Elementary School when she saw McAllister yank out her brother's sign. "I know her. I've seen her at candidate forums," King-Levine said.
After the primary, Barr publicly endorsed Levine. Barr challenged McAllister's credentials and integrity. Among other things, Barr alleged, McAllister is a campaign sign thief.
Barr contends that she encountered repeated trouble with her 600 signs. Her workers would install a Barr sign and return the next day to find a McAllister sign occupying that hole in the ground, Barr said. The Barr sign would be missing, on the ground or in the bushes.
Two days after the primary, Barr aide Linda Platt told police that she had spotted one culprit in action.
Platt works with Barr's husband as an Eckerd Drug Store pharmacist. Her polling place was The Meadows apartment complex in northeast St. Petersburg. About 11 a.m., Platt said, she installed a Barr sign at the polling place.
About 40 minutes later, Platt said, "I saw a dark-haired female get out of a Volvo and throw Sylvia's sign into the bushes."
Platt said she shouted at the woman, who "got in her car and just scurried away." Platt said she jotted down the license plate _ KAQ92I _ and reported the incident to St. Petersburg police.
Records at the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles show that license tag KAQ92I belongs to a Volvo registered to Edgar and Ellen Kline of Largo. Edgar Kline died in 1989; Ellen Kline has no driver's license.
The Klines' daughter, Judith Kline, is a St. Petersburg osteopathic physician who is a longtime associate of McAllister's. They once owned a house together. And McAllister recently shared Kline's office at 8821 Dr. M. L. King (Ninth) St. N., according to the Florida Bar Journal.
Ellen Kline said she lent her car to someone, whom she declined to identify. Judith Kline did not respond to a telephoned question about who was driving her mother's car on Election Day.
McAllister owns a Mercedes. But about two months before the primary, she began driving a white Volvo to candidate forums, several other candidates said.
St. Petersburg police spokesman Wendell Creager confirmed that Platt filed a police report about sign vandalism two days after the primary. The case was forwarded to the state attorney's office for possible prosecution for criminal mischief, Creager said.
Assistant State Attorney Marie King said the investigation is pending.
_ Times researcher Debbie Wolfe assisted with this report.