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MADD losing focus, ex-leaders say

Pinellas County Mothers Against Drunk Driving started out as the voice of the victim, says founder Diane Fradin.

A small core of stalwarts whose loved ones were victims of alcohol-related crashes spoke before county commissioners, rallied outside courthouses, criticized law enforcement officials and even made citizen's arrests in an effort to combat what they called "domestic terrorism," more commonly known as drunken driving.

But that was 1983, just after Fradin's 25-year-old daughter, Laurie Ferguson, was killed in a crash that involved a drunken driver. Determined to put an end to DUI, Fradin stopped working as a real estate agent to start a MADD chapter in Pinellas County.

"We put our heart and soul into this chapter," Fradin said in a recent interview.

Today, her efforts for MADD are just memories. She and a number of other disenchanted former presidents and members left the organization. In fact, at least four of the chapter's seven past presidents no longer are active in Pinellas County MADD, although they still are active in fighting DUI.

They say that the once-bellowing voice for justice has become a squeal, quieted by politics and an all-too-cozy relationship with law enforcement.

"I was too naive to realize (in 1983) that even with death, everything becomes political," Fradin said.

A major point of tension is the fact that MADD currently allows police officers to sit on its board of directors.

That's a conflict of interest, says Fradin and others, such as Vicki Gilbert, chapter president from 1991 to '93, and Tom Carey, a personal injury lawyer in Clearwater who was president from 1984 to '86.

"I think you can compromise your effectiveness if you include people who have a stake in what happens in the process," Fradin said. "We have to be a watchdog and make sure that the process works, and there could be some question here, I do believe."

Gayle Kennedy-Peters, the current MADD president, refused to comment on the issue or to clarify the role of MADD's board of directors and an advisory board on which former members say a number of police officers sit.

"This is not newsworthy," Kennedy-Peters said.

As late as 1993, when Gilbert was president, there were no police officers on the board, Gilbert said.

Of five 1996-1997 board members, at least one is a police officer. Sgt. Teri Dioquino heads the Selective Traffic Enforcement Program with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. She also is the state representative for the local MADD chapter. In fact, Dioquino says, MADD members often have asked her to run for vice president, but time constraints have kept her from doing so.

"If I saw something that would even appear to be a conflict . . . I would definitely remove myself from anything that appeared to be controversial," Dioquino said.

But past MADD members say a 1992 incident involving Dioquino makes their case.

Pinellas County sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha was stopped after deputies noticed her car weaving in August 1992. Pasha admitted having wine and champagne with then-Chief Deputy John Mulry, who was driving another car and stopped at the scene. Minutes after the traffic stop, Dioquino arrived and drove Pasha and Mulry home.

Pasha was not given a breath test. Pasha and Mulry were suspended for driving their official cars after drinking.

Carey and Fradin contend that MADD should work with law enforcement officials but not allow them to assume high-profile positions or offices in the organization.

There is no guideline that prohibits law enforcement officials from assuming office in MADD, said Tresa Coe, spokeswoman for MADD national headquarters in Dallas. In fact, a police officer sits on the national board of directors, Coe said.

"We feel that it is very important for us to work together," Coe said. "I don't think this is a new concept."

Still, some say, signs that MADD's effectiveness has been hampered by the close relationship are subtle but clear.

"It's this chummy approach, which I think is ultimately dangerous," Carey said.

Take Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Charles Cope, who was charged with drunken driving in June. Carey, Fradin, Gilbert and another former president, Connie Reading Pantano, were featured in a Times article June 28, saying that he should be suspended.

There was no public outcry from MADD about the judge. But the outspoken past presidents apparently hit a sore spot with Kennedy-Peters, and she wrote a letter to the editor:

"I want to make it perfectly clear that the opinions and statements of Thomas Carey, Vicki Gilbert, Diane Fradin and Connie Pantano are not representative of MADD."

MADD would not sit in judgment of Cope until he was tried by a jury of his peers, Kennedy-Peters wrote.

"If MADD is not willing to take a proactive approach in the case of a sitting judge, then who?" Fradin asked.

For the past two years, disgruntled past presidents have asked MADD to join them in efforts to combat drunken driving, they said. They say they asked MADD last year to support efforts to organize a special task force to devise a systemized plan of attack. MADD not only refused to support them, Carey said, it sent a letter to county and state officials telling them that MADD did not support the effort.

"I thought that was strange," he said.

He and others are still working to organize the task force.

Carey said that, earlier this year, he tried, to no avail, to gain support from MADD in a fight to ban happy hours.

Times change.

When Fradin started the chapter in 1983, convicting drunken drivers was a new concept, and social perspective on the issue had to be changed.

"It was a very intense experience back then," Carey said. "Drunken driving had been ignored for years."

Fradin scrambled to find the minimum 20 members required by national MADD to form a chapter, she said.

"It wasn't easy," she said. "Too many people could see themselves behind the wheel."

But she did find them, and the chapter was born.

She was the first to address the County Commission with a proposal to fund a special DUI patrol unit, she said.

It felt good to be active in the early movement, said Carey, whose wife, Joni, was killed when her car collided with that of a drunken driver in 1983 near Tampa International Airport. Back then, MADD members were too naive to fear political restraints, he said.

In fact, Fradin was so unversed in the political process, she once asked Carey if she should call a judge "your excellency."

"We all were pretty radicalized," he said. "We felt free to criticize law enforcement endlessly."

They criticized the prosecutors, the judges, the Legislatureand the governor, he said.

"We felt free to express our First Amendment rights on this issue," Carey said. "We felt that we had been selected by fate."

In the 1980s, MADD frowned on large-scale fund raising and national centralization. Carey said the chapter refused many donations.

"We told people, "No money, just help and prayers,'

" he said.

But the local MADD chapter grew as MADD grew nationally, Carey said. The organization now does extensive fund raising and has a national budget of more than $40-million.

Fradin left Pinellas MADD in 1986 and moved to California. She moved back to Indian Shores in November, but was surprised to learn through Kennedy-Peters' letter to the editor that she no longer was considered a member of the organization she started.

Pantano and Carey left in the early 1990s, unhappy with MADD's new direction toward a more political and centralized stance, they said. Gilbert says she was kicked out of the organization sometime in 1993 or 1994 after disagreements with the local president. To symbolize the termination of her membership, pictures of her two grandsons, who were killed by a drunken driver, were sent to her home, Gilbert said.

They and several other former MADD members have formed a local chapter of Remove Intoxicated Drivers, a New York-based group known as RID that was started in 1978 by a television talk show host in Schenectady.

Fradin says she still would like to work with MADD.

"Why all of a sudden is there no place for us?" she asked. "It's the drunken driving we want to go after."