The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office is looking into a complaint alleging that Mayor Bob Jackson traded a Fire Department promotion for a union endorsement in the March 4 election.
The president of the local firefighters union was promoted to deputy fire chief two days before the election, about a month after Jackson and the other incumbents received the union endorsement.
So far, "it doesn't look like there was anything done illegally," said sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Greg Tita. Tita said there is no criminal investigation, but the department is checking out the allegation. The department is conducting interviews to determine whether a criminal investigation is called for, Tita said.
City officials said Jackson's opponent, former Commissioner Marty Shelby, made the call to the Sheriff's Office. Shelby did not return several calls for comment.
Tita would not say who made the call, but he said such complaints are not unusual after elections.
"When someone calls we do have to check into the complaint," he said. "It's usually disgruntled losers that find reason to call the sheriff and ask him to look into improprieties."
Jackson said he wasn't surprised by the complaint, given the contentious nature of the campaign. But he had nothing to do with Jeff Bullock's promotion from lieutenant to deputy chief, he said.
"I've never exerted any influence on promotions. I don't want to get in that position," Jackson said. "That's one thing I'm proud of: I've not interfered."
The commission approved a Fire Department reorganization that created the deputy chief position at its Feb. 18 meeting. Jackson had received the endorsement the first week in February. Jackson said he would have postponed the reorganization decision until after the election had he known it could lead to controversy.
Fire Chief Caroll Williams said he has wanted to create the position for years, and it was his decision to give Bullock the job.
"It had nothing to do with the election," he said. He chose Bullock, whom he has known 24 years, for his knowledge of management and labor issues and for his communication skills. "I thought Mr. Shelby had more respect for me than that, to think I would make any moves like that other than to make this a better organization."
Bullock, 41, has worked for the department since November 1979, when he was hired as a firefighter at age 18. He has been president of the Largo Professional Firefighters Association for about four years, he said.
Bullock said he tried to distance himself from the endorsement process because he knew he was going to seek a promotion. He cast one of six votes of the union's executive board, but did not campaign for any candidates and appointed someone else to handle most of the candidate contact.
"I didn't feel comfortable being part of the process," he said.
The union endorsed all three incumbents, as it has in past elections. Bullock said the union believes in maintaining long-term relationships with elected officials.
Bullock resigned from his position with the union after his promotion. He also quit his second job, department director of a local company. His Fire Department salary increased from $56,492 to $69,410, but he said he actually took a financial loss because he gave up his other income.
"I didn't have to take this job," he said. "It just felt right. I'm a firefighter."
Sheriff's Office investigators visited Bullock on Tuesday at the Fire Department, he said. They talked for about 30 minutes. Bullock says he doesn't remember their exact questions but that he described the endorsement process, his career and his path to promotion.
City Manager Steven Stanton said Shelby called him the day before the election and asked him if the commission had directed the fire chief to make the promotion.
"He indicated people in the Fire Department were calling him up who were upset their union president had sold them for an endorsement," Stanton said. "He indicated that if this were true it was indicative of a corrupt political process and a corrupt city administration. He was just very, very upset."
Stanton said he told Shelby that no deal had been made. The deputy chief position had been under consideration for about four months, Stanton said, adding that it was Chief Williams' decision to create the position and to give Bullock the job.
"He had always had his eye on Jeff Bullock," Stanton said. "Commissioners were not involved in the decisionmaking."
Jackson said Wednesday that he had not yet met with the Sheriff's Office. Williams expected to meet with them Thursday, he said. Tita said the inquiry would probably be concluded by Friday.