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Bruce Tyndall, Pinellas politician whose career ended in drug scandal, dies

Tyndall spent 18 years on the County Commission before a 1996 cocaine possession charge revealed his ties to a world of crime in Tampa Bay.
 
Former Pinellas County Commissioner Bruce Tyndall, center, with his attorney, Paul Meissner, and wife, Barbara Tyndall, during a 1997 hearing in which he pleaded no contest to a cocaine possession charge. Tyndall, who served 18 years on the County Commission before a drug scandal ended his career, died this month at 86.
Former Pinellas County Commissioner Bruce Tyndall, center, with his attorney, Paul Meissner, and wife, Barbara Tyndall, during a 1997 hearing in which he pleaded no contest to a cocaine possession charge. Tyndall, who served 18 years on the County Commission before a drug scandal ended his career, died this month at 86. [ Times (1997) ]
Published Feb. 13, 2023|Updated Feb. 13, 2023

Until the last days of his 18 years as a Pinellas County commissioner, Bruce Tyndall had a reputation as a consensus-builder, one who always showed up to meetings and almost never made waves.

A Republican who lived in Indian Rocks Beach and made his money as a real estate broker and investor, Tyndall won reelection four times, twice running unopposed, including his last election in 1994. As chairperson of the Public Safety Coordinating Council, a group of attorneys, law enforcement officials and judges, he helped push for the construction of the Pinellas County Justice Center, finished in 1996.

Tyndall’s public life came to an end the next year inside that same courthouse. He had been arrested in a drug sting in December 1996, and the case revealed that he’d been quietly linked for years to accused drug dealers, thieves and sex workers around Tampa Bay. His plea of no contest to a charge of possessing cocaine with intent to distribute, for which he received probation, ended a strange chapter in Pinellas County’s civic history.

Tyndall died on Feb. 1, according to an obituary posted by a Tarpon Springs funeral home. He was 86. His son, Greg Tyndall, declined to comment for this story.

People who worked with Tyndall during his decades in the public eye recalled him as a steady, moderate politician. Tall, handsome and charismatic, Tyndall had a “great presence,” said Ed Armstrong, a prominent Pinellas land-use attorney who counted Tyndall among his first clients.

“He was completely without pretense,” Armstrong said. “He was friendly with everybody.”

They also recalled the sense of shock that reverberated upon Tyndall’s arrest, and the way that, in a county where political circles often become lifelong fraternities, he nearly disappeared in the aftermath.

“He kind of retreated to north county, obviously very embarrassed over what had happened, and he really didn’t come out too often,” said George Greer, who served with Tyndall on the County Commission before becoming a Pinellas-Pasco circuit court judge.

Related: From 1997: Secret life, early warnings

Tyndall was born in Erwin, North Carolina, to a working-class family, according to his obituary and Times archives. He worked in tobacco and cotton fields during his childhood summers. His family moved to Jacksonville, where he graduated from high school and had a job putting labels on cigar boxes before enlisting in the U.S. Air Force.

Tyndall married his first wife in the 1950s, and they had two children. He went to college and began a career as an electrical engineer, then started a data processing firm. In 1971, his wife sought a divorce.

Soon after, he married Barbara Tyndall. They remained together until her death in 2018, according to his obituary.

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He served three years on the Largo City Commission in the mid-1970s, a period in which it transitioned from being a town to a city. He then set his sights on the County Commission, winning a seat on his second try in 1978. The new gig coincided with a career change, buying homes and land.

“If you’re willing to take the gamble,” he told a reporter in 1986, “then it’s one of the greatest rewards.”

His net worth grew to nearly $3 million in the 1980s. It crashed in the early 1990s amid investments gone sour and unpaid property taxes.

Around the same time, he started hanging out with a Palm Harbor attorney with a reputation for hard partying. In 1990, the Times reported, that attorney introduced Tyndall to members of the Lake Alfred Gang, a burglary enterprise that cashed $500,000 in checks stolen from businesses around Central Florida.

Tyndall started doing cocaine. He stopped showing up to his office at the Clearwater courthouse except on County Commission meeting days.

His public image hadn’t changed, but sheriff’s deputies were starting to tease out connections between him and the Tampa Bay underworld. His name and number showed up in the client file of a woman who called herself “the Heidi Fleiss of Tampa Bay,” referring to the Hollywood madame who was a tabloid fixture of the era, and in the phone records of suspected Lake Alfred Gang members.

Still, deputies didn’t home in on Tyndall until December 1996, when the gang members he was closest to were arrested. A few weeks later, Tyndall met one of them in a room at the Sheraton Sand Key. He pulled 2 grams of cocaine from his left pocket, and detectives filled the room.

Tyndall resigned from the County Commission soon after his arrest. Then-Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed Calvin Harris to fill the seat, making Harris Pinellas’ first Black county commissioner.

A slew of Pinellas County public figures showed up to support Tyndall at his sentencing hearing months later. Charles Rainey, the former longtime county commissioner, called him “a good man who made a mistake.”

With the case over, Tyndall receded from view. Florida Division of Corporations records show he maintained a business in his name, Bruce Tyndall Enterprises, until 2014. According to his obituary, which dedicated one sentence to his nearly two decades as commissioner, he “continued his career as a project manager with Election Systems and Software … overseeing installations of electronic voting processes.”

Greer said he and Tyndall had lunch a couple of times over the years and occasionally spoke on the phone. He didn’t know Tyndall’s life after the scandal in great detail, he said, but he had the sense that Tyndall was focused on shoring up his personal life. Barbara had stuck by him through the turmoil, Greer noted.

“His priority was becoming a much better husband,” Greer said. “And I think he accomplished that.”

Armstrong said he too talked to Tyndall only a handful of times after the scandal. But he held on to a memory from the day of the sentencing hearing: He’d gone to the courthouse to show support, and he came home to a message on his answering machine.

“It was from Bruce,” he said, “just saying, ‘I know you were there today at my sentencing hearing. I wanted to let you know how much that meant to me … I’m going to do better.’”