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A 911 romance sparks questions

Published Oct. 6, 2005

For at least five years, the manager of Pinellas County's 911 emergency dispatch center dated the president of the company that was selling an estimated $230,000 in software to the center.

Christal Coleman, the 911 center manager, and Jerry Carter, a former Largo fire chief who co-founded the EAI Systems Inc. software company, acknowledge the close relationship.

When Coleman needed to sell her Clearwater condominium so she could buy a house in 1992, Carter bought it. He paid $9,400 more than Coleman paid for it three years earlier. Within a year, he sold it at a $9,300 loss.

And Coleman and Carter frequently shared cars, with Coleman driving leased automobiles provided by Carter, including her most recent, a red 1992 BMW, which she started driving earlier this year.

Coleman said she understands people raising questions about her relationship but insists she did nothing wrong and never hid it from her bosses.

"Business is business, and my personal life is personal," Coleman said last week.

When asked if the relationship gave him an edge over other software companies, Carter said, "The answer to that is no."

Coleman added that anything she got from Carter, like cars or the condo sale, was because of their romance, not because of business.

Coleman's bosses agree and see no conflict of interest.

"That perception has come up numerous times over the years," County Administrator Fred Marquis said Friday. Each time an accusation _ usuallyanonymous _ about Coleman's ties to Carter was logged, Marquis investigated it, he said, with no indication that Coleman or her department favored EAI unfairly.

"I'm satisfied that there is no problem," Marquis said.

The county's Statement of Ethics says that Pinellas desires honest and accountable government, and to that end, it says, employees will:

"Disclose or report any actual or perceived conflicts of interest.

"Accept only authorized compensation for the performance of our duties and respectfully decline any offers or gifts or gratuities from those with whom we do business.

"Neither apply nor accept improper influences, favoritism and personal bias."

While Carter and Coleman's personal relationship continues, their business dealings are over. Two months ago, the county ended its contract with the company that bought EAI and paid $60,000 for the rights to the company's detailed software codes so it could do its own computer repairs and improvements.

During the life of its Pinellas contracts, EAI and the company that bought it in June 1992, Bell Atlantic Public Sector Systems, made $1.2-million.

How much of that was spent by Coleman's center is not immediately clear. Some county invoices that would break down the spending have been destroyed as part of county routine. But by county officials' estimates, and partial county financial records, it is clear that the 911 center spent at least $230,000 with EAI and Bell Atlantic.

The computer software is designed for one of the most vital communications centers in Pinellas. Every 911 emergency call is routed to the county's 911 center, deep in the basement of the courthouse annex building in Clearwater. Operators then dispatch firefighters and paramedics or transfer the call to the proper police department.

Its annual budget is $3.3-million.

Carter, who is married but separated, began dating Coleman in 1985, when the two were Largo city employees, Coleman said. Their relationship predates his going to work for EAI in June 1987, when he quit as Largo's fire chief to become one of three presidents at the software company.

Coleman likewise left her Largo job and went to work for the county. She has been operations manager in the 911 center since at least 1989. She said she played no role in the selection of EAI's software when it was first chosen by Pinellas County.

"We were their very first customer," Coleman said. "If anything, maybe my expectations were higher. I saw what their potential was."

David Bilodeau, Coleman's supervisor and the county's director of emergency management, said Coleman was extremely critical of EAI's work through the years, which he said deteriorated as the company grew larger and sold more software nationally.

As Coleman put it: "They outsold their ability to support their product. The customer service was always seriously lacking. Whether or not I'm involved personally, that's a fact."

Cars and condos

Coleman, Bilodeau and Marquis said they had little choice but to do business with EAI. Carter's company owned the software and the so-called source codes that allowed them to fix problems and develop upgrades. No other firm could do that, because the software was only licensed to Pinellas, and not owned outright by the county, Bilodeau said.

Dropping EAI would have meant replacing all the software, Bilodeau added.

Carter and Coleman continued their romantic relationship during this time, Carter acknowledged.

"We definitely have a relationship," Carter said. "It's a long-term relationship going on. What the future holds, I don't know."

But that relationship did not give EAI an unfair business advantage, he added in a brief interview Friday.

Coleman drove Carter's cars during the years, and now drives his former red BMW. But the most tangible financial deal in their relationship is the sale of her condo.

Coleman said that in 1992, she and Carter were in the process of breaking up. Carter had just sold EAI and had a lot of money, she said, so he bought her condo in July 1992 for $75,800, "kind of like a divorce settlement."

She had paid $66,400 for the town house in November 1988. She used Carter's payment to help buy a house in Clearwater, she said.

Carter sold the condo in March 1993 for $66,500, according to county property records.

Coleman and Carter said the deal had nothing to do with business. The two eventually began seeing each other again, and Coleman said last week she thinks they have a future together.

Though their business relationship is over, Carter and Coleman's personal ties still have 911 center operators buzzing. Marquis and Bilodeau say some of the operators are apparently disgruntled over mandatory overtime they are being forced to work because of employee shortages and are taking it out on Coleman.

"She would probably be more critical of EAI than I was," Bilodeau said. "Christal Coleman has worked tirelessly and has tremendous expertise. She is a phenomenal individual.

"It hurts deep in my heart when people throw darts at her when she's given what she's given."