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Race for Pinellas sheriff draws incumbent and vocal critic of agency

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri
Published Oct. 27, 2016

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has drawn a vocal opponent in his re-election bid who has made it his mission to unearth and change what he believes are corrupt practices by a poorly run agency.

James McLynas, 57, is running with no party affiliation against Gualtieri, a Republican who was appointed to the post in 2011 and won the 2012 election.

Gualtieri has spent his career in law enforcement and, if re-elected, plans to continue programs he has already set in motion aimed at alleviating juvenile crime, use of the Baker Act and arrests for low-level offenses. McLynas is semiretired but previously owned a national vehicle inspection business and has no law enforcement experience, which he says gives him a fresh perspective. He has two primary changes he would make: ending marijuana enforcement and eliminating what he considers "nuisance tickets" for minor offenses.

McLynas, a county resident for about seven years, is running based on a distrust of Gualtieri and the agency after a personal run-in. He filed several complaints against a longtime deputy, including one that alleged the deputy interfered with criminal investigations or court cases at the request of McLynas' estranged wife. The deputy was fired in 2013 amid an unrelated internal investigation.

McLynas believes Gualtieri retaliated against him for filing what he said were "valid reports against Pinellas County deputies" and threatening to expose "Gualtieri's failure to hold those deputies accountable." He said the sheriff assigned deputies to look for offenses they could arrest him for. Gualtieri called McLynas' claims "baseless and without merit."

Deputies arrested him in 2013 on several felony charges, including dealing in stolen property and grand theft of a motor vehicle. Court records show that to locate him for the arrest, deputies used a cellphone tracking device called a Stingray that has raised privacy concerns nationwide. The charges were later dropped or not pursued by prosecutors, according to records, and McLynas contends he was falsely arrested.

He announced his candidacy the day he was released from jail.

"The people of Pinellas County should have a good idea of who is running the sheriff's office and how corrupt he is," McLynas said this week.

He has since become a vocal critic of the agency on his campaign website. McLynas said he sees the agency following a national trend toward aggressive policing aimed at making money rather than keeping the public safe.

McLynas said he would end marijuana enforcement and tickets for minor offenses, such as not wearing a seat belt. He would channel the resources into solving major crimes, he said. McLynas would also donate half his salary to local charities, he said.

"Policing needs to return to basically where it first began," he said. "For protecting and serving the community when they need you to be there, to protect them from actual crimes."

Paul Rozelle, senior associate counsel for the sheriff's office, said the sheriff must uphold the laws of the Constitution and the state and cannot "pick and choose which laws he or she wants to enforce.'' McLynas said he would have a responsibility to allocate his resources to best serve the community.

He added that he filed a Florida Bar complaint against Rozelle Oct. 12 claiming he lied about the existence of documents in the Stingray case.

Gualtieri, who has worked in several capacities at the sheriff's office and who spent several years as a lawyer in private practice, has a plans to improve and streamline operations.

He wants to see the Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion program reach its full potential after it kicked off this month. The program allows offenders who commit minor crimes, such as marijuana possession or petty theft, to do community service hours instead of getting arrested.

Gualtieri is also putting together a mental health unit that will be made up of two deputies and two social workers, to respond to and follow up on calls related to mental illness. Gualtieri said the goal is to reduce the roughly 10,000 times the Baker Act is used annually in the county.

One of the biggest issues facing law enforcement is juvenile car thefts and burglaries, he said. Gualtieri has formed two subcommittees made up of police chiefs, the state attorney and public defender, faith-based organizations and other stakeholders to examine the programs and processes in the juvenile justice system with the hope of identifying the root causes of juvenile crime and recidivism.

Gualtieri has also spoken candidly about inexperience on the force after a wave of hires that followed hundreds of staff cuts during the recession. Out of the 1,500 sworn deputies, more than 600 were hired in the last four years. He plans to beef up training.

"You've got to know the culture, you've got to know how far to push," he said, "because every organization has capacity."

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 445-4157 or kvarn@tampabay.com. Follow @kathrynvarn.