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Grand jury term ends; extortion case too?

The federal grand jury investigating extortion allegations against a Tampa businessman and two Hillsborough County commissioners ended its one-year term Wednesday, apparently without charging anyone in the case.

The routine disbanding of a grand jury doesn't automatically mean a case is closed, since prosecutors are always free to transfer evidence to a newly empaneled grand jury.

Yet, the defense lawyer for one commissioner in the case said the development reaffirmed his belief that there was nothing to the allegations of extortion at Tampa General Hospital first raised two years ago.

"In my opinion the (investigation) is no longer alive and well, and he's not going to be charged with any type of an offense," said Gary Trombley, who represents Commissioner Tom Scott.

Scott, a Democrat, is fighting for re-election to a second term. He is headed for an Oct. 3 runoff with state Sen. James Hargrett Jr., who has hammered at Scott about the investigation. Scott did not return a message Thursday seeking comment.

The other commissioner implicated, Jim Norman, did not return a call for comment. Norman, a Republican, has two more years to serve in his present term. Norman's defense attorney declined comment. So did an attorney for the businessman, medical equipment salesman David Bekhor of Lutz.

Scott's attorney said he "would like to see a declaration from the United States Attorney's Office that this cloud is removed from his life, and taken out of politics as an issue bantered about by his opponents."

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office declined comment Thursday, saying "we can't discuss grand jury matters."

Two years ago, Tampa General Hospital president Bruce Siegel complained that Norman and Scott were putting pressure on him to buy expensive MRI equipment from Bekhor. Siegel claimed the two commissioners threatened to block key financial legislation for the hospital unless he gave Bekhor a contract.

Federal investigators looked into the matter, and issued subpoenas to all seven Hillsborough County commissioners. The case was closed last year with no charges. Investigators re-opened the case after the St. Petersburg Times reported that Bekhor gave $15,000 to the church where Scott is pastor. The Times also discovered Norman in Las Vegas, staying in a discounted resort room arranged by Bekhor.

The grand jury that heard the second investigation was empaneled on Sept. 10, 1999, according to court personnel. It regularly met on Wednesdays. It heard from Bekhor's office assistant, among others in the case. Its last meeting was this week, almost exactly a year after it first met.

Prosecutors had the option of extending the grand jury's term for six more months, said George Tragos, a former federal prosecutor who represents no party in the investigation. Doing so, Tragos said, is more efficient than re-presenting a complicated case to a new grand jury.

"Either this means the case is over, or there is so much more to do that they would rather start fresh with a new grand jury," Tragos said. ""Sometimes, if you've got 800 leads out there, you are so far away from an indictment that you stop the grand jury for a while, have the FBI go dig and dig and dig, and then re-present with a new package."

A third possibility is that the grand jury has returned an indictment that is sealed, Tragos said. Indictments can be sealed indefinitely. Tragos said he doubted that federal prosecutors would conceal an indictment of someone running for re-election.

"I don't think the United States Attorney's Office would concern itself with political aspects," Tragos said. "If they had the evidence to indict, they would go forward."

Siegel, who left his job as hospital president in February after the hospital's board lost confidence in him, declined comment Thursday.

In the past four years, local political candidates received at least $12,750 from Bekhor, his family and his companies. Candidates received another $4,750 from Bekhor's employees, his accountant and lawyer, and family members.

_ Larry Dougherty can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or doughertysptimes.com.

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