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CELL TOWER FEUD TAKES FOUL TONE

Four anti-cellular tower activists say a school district vendor is looking into their backgrounds with the help of a private eye. But the contractor and investigator say they are the ones targeted by zealous activists.

It's supposed to be about what's best for children.

But the fightabout cellular phone towers at Hillsborough County schools has veered off in some strange directions.

A South Tampa mother was advised to check her car for a tracking device. A school district contractor keeps binders filled with other people's e-mails.

Principals have been pressured. There's chatter about a YouTube video of a tower falling or catching fire.

"It's very Orwellian," said Bill Cook, a leader in People Against Cell Towers at Schools, whose members suspect they are being spied on.

Stacy Frank, the cell tower contractor at the center of the storm, is mystified at the allegation.

"Their defense is a good offense," she said.

- - -

Things heated up shortly before Labor Day when PACTS members got a feeling that somebody was watching them.

The rumor was that Frank had hired private investigator Kevin Kalwary to look into the core members in South Tampa.

Members Carrie Grimail and Lisa Williams both called Kalwary to find out. Grimail says that instead of calling her back, he showed up at her door in the middle of the day with another man - a witness, Kalwary later explained. That was little comfort to Grimail, who said, "I felt he was doing it to simply intimidate me."

Kalwary said he tried to call Grimail before visiting her. She didn't let him into her home, but took his business card.

Williams, after consulting an uncle who does investigative work, tried to trick Kalwary into showing his hand. She called him, pretending she wanted to hire him. He was agreeable until she mentioned Frank, she said. At that point, he said he couldn't help and ended the conversation.

But he left a card at her door the next morning, which troubled Williams. With such a common name, she wondered, how had he found her house so quickly?

Kalwary, a veteran journalist who now works mostly for attorneys, said he is strictly a media consultant for Frank, and never meant to intimidate anyone.

"I felt like she really wanted to talk," he said of Williams. "They called me first. I didn't call them."

Williams' uncle, meanwhile, said to check under the car.

- - -

From Collier Enterprises II's office off Kennedy Boulevard, Frank carves out deals with the school district. Collectively, her firm's towers net the district more than $200,000 a year, and most of it goes to the schools, Frank said.

But in tony South Tampa, PTA parents pride themselves in raising tens of thousands of dollars without a steel tower on the playground. Grimail said she got involved in the issue initially because of aesthetics.

Then she read about safety concerns and started trading information with other parents. The movement grew, and they scuttled a tower planned for Coleman Middle School.

The four members at the core of PACTS -Grimail, Williams, Cook and Mike Rothenburg - all live near Coleman, but none has kids there.

Kalwary and Frank find that odd. Grimail said there's a greater principle.

"It's ironic to me that first they called us NIMBYs," she mused - for "not in my back yard."

"Now we're busybodies."

It's more than that, said Frank, who inadvertently was included in the group's e-mail chain. She prints the messages and keeps them in six binders. In them, tower opponents discuss how to pressure school principals, who get the final say in whether a tower goes up at the school.

They wrote a letter accusing one principal of "illegal acts" related to the cell tower decision. That one generated a harsh response from the school district's attorney.

Members also talk about influencing the media and asking pointed questions to the insurance carrier for Frank's company. For instance, and here is where that YouTube video comes in: Whom do we sue if our family is crushed by a tower or our child is electrocuted while retrieving a ball from the playground?

"Their goals are to slow me down, and they're only targeting me," said Frank. "We are not doing anything, anywhere near what you see in these e-mails."

The two wonder if the activists have a financial motive.

But they insist they aren't digging into anybody's background or staking out houses.

Williams and her husband aren't so sure. Seeing a stranger parked across the street from their home, they called the police. The man told Tray Williams he was just reading a book. He left before they could take down a license plate number.

- - -

Two other members of the group say Frank has been strangely forthcoming with details about their lives.

Rothenburg said that at a City Council meeting, Frank asked him about the finance and engineering fields, indicating she knew his work history. Frank said she was trying to be polite.

Cook said Frank has asked him publicly if his data-based marketing firm has clients in the cellular industry. "Clearly, there has been digging going on," he said.

Frank said it's illogical that someone who works for wireless companies would oppose a cell tower.

It goes on and on.

Williams offered to take a lie detector test to prove Kalwary had admitted working for Frank as an investigator. Kalwary asks: What credibility does Williams have if she admits she tried to trick him?

- - -

While the school district benefits financially from the towers, Frank declined to say how much Collier Enterprises brings in from the deals.

You can argue that the district has such a big cash reserve, it doesn't need the leases.

"Nonsense," said spokeswoman Linda Cobbe, noting that about $100 million was cut out of the budget in the last two years. Nor can every school make up the difference with fundraisers.

Cobbe said the district stands behind Frank, a law-abiding businesswoman who has done an admirable job.

The PACTS members defend their actions and insist the moral ground is theirs. If principals are under fire, that's the School Board's fault, Cook said. "We are not a corporation. We are a loosely knit group of people."

Sure, there have been some desperate moves, Grimail said.

"It was stuff you would do to try to keep a cell tower out of a school."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or sokol@sptimes.com.

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