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Former Pinellas commissioner gets probation

Former County Commissioner Bruce Tyndall, who spent 18 years in the public spotlight focusing on criminal justice issues, emerged from three months of self-imposed exile Monday to plead no contest to a cocaine possession charge.

Before about 50 friends, relatives and colleagues who gathered at the shiny new courthouse he helped to build, Tyndall was sentenced to two years' probation with random drug tests.

It marked a sad end to a successful political career.

"He was a good man who made a mistake," former Commissioner Charles E. Rainey said.

Tyndall, 61, arrived at the hearing, his first public appearance since being arrested Dec. 20 with almost 2 grams of cocaine in a Sand Key hotel room, looking rested and thinner than before his arrest.

His wife of 25 years, Barbara Tyndall, was by his side as he greeted the dozens of supporters who filled the courtroom and spilled out into the hall. He declined to make any public comment.

Tyndall's tenure on the County Commission ended with his resignation Christmas Eve, four days after being charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.

Tyndall had brought a six-pack of beer and 1.8 grams of cocaine to the Sheraton Sand Key, where he met Wendy Carlton, of Tampa and a woman he would later learn was an undercover sheriff's detective. Sheriff's detectives in an adjoining room videotaped Tyndall as he pulled out the cocaine.

Detectives learned about Tyndall's cocaine use from Carlton and her husband, Jeffrey Carlton, who had been arrested several months earlier on check forgery charges. The Carltons told detectives about a four-year relationship with Tyndall that included parties with cocaine, alcohol and prostitutes.

It was a stunning contrast to Tyndall's public image. Tyndall, who focused much of his political effort on crime issues, had served since 1989 as chairman of the Public Safety Coordinating Council, a group of judges, lawyers and law enforcement officials.

The group has concentrated in recent years on building the new, $52-million criminal courts complex where Tyndall was sentenced Monday and on plans for a $30-million expansion of the county jail.

"Really, more than anything else, he hurt himself and his family," said County EMS Director Barry Mogil, who attended Tyndall's hearing.

"He was still a good public servant."

Through his public work, Tyndall attained enough political clout to be re-elected four times, twice without opposition. Monday's hearing was a who's who of county government.

Attending were county commissioners Steve Seibert and Bob Stewart, County Attorney Susan Churuti, County Administrator Fred Marquis, Supervisor of Elections Dot Ruggles, who lives next door to Tyndall's home on Indian Rocks Beach, and Wanda Kimsey, his secretary of 18 years.

The maximum sentence for possession of cocaine with intent to deliver is 14 years in prison, but since Tyndall had no prior criminal record, sentencing guidelines called for a non-prison sentence.

Judge Brandt Downey asked Tyndall a few standard questions before accepting the plea without comment.

Tyndall stood before Downey with his wife and his attorney, Paul Meissner.

"What we have here is a charge of possession of 1.8 grams of cocaine borne out of a personal problem of alcohol and substance abuse and dependency," Meissner said.

Meissner also referred to Tyndall's "predisposition (to addiction) based on family problems and genetics."

Tyndall has refused to make any public comment since his arrest except for a one-page typed statement.

Meissner said Tyndall had completed a 28-day residential drug treatment program and was "actively involved in outpatient treatment."

Downey withheld a formal finding of guilt, which means that if Tyndall successfully completes two years of probation, he will have a clean record.

Tyndall, who also will have to pay $250 in court costs, hugged his supporters after the hearing and reported to the probation office, where he waited in line with two other offenders.

Tyndall, who has a real estate license, began receiving a $23,786-a-year state pension in January, and, as a retiree, is covered under the county health insurance plan. His drug treatment is covered under that plan.

Bruce Bartlett, the chief assistant state attorney, said his office was satisfied that Tyndall's addiction problem did not cause him to commit any wrongdoing in his work as a county commissioner and that there was no reason for him to seek a punishment beyond what an average defendant would get.

"Right away, he admitted he had a problem and entered a drug treatment program," said Bartlett. "I wish we could get most offenders to do that."