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    Ober seeks prison for Connolly

    Hillsborough's prosecutor files a 31-page memo that cites Don Connolly's ''thirst for greed'' in calling for incarceration.

    By JEFF TESTERMAN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 24, 2002

    TAMPA -- If land speculator Don Connolly figured his kinder business strategy would win him friends and influence prosecutors, he was wrong -- at least in the case of Mark Ober.

    Ober, the Hillsborough state attorney, filed a 31-page memo Friday that attacked Connolly's credibility, condemned his greed and recommended that the controversial investor be sentenced to prison next week.

    Ober, through Assistant State Attorney Patricia Cullen Turpin, asked a judge to consider Connolly's "thirst for greed," his quest "for exorbitant profit" and his "ruthless treatment of the citizens of Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties."

    "The defendant has shown himself to be utterly unreceptive to rehabilitation," the prosecutor said. "Prison is the only appropriate sentence for an individual who has so completely violated all attempts to supervise him."

    Connolly is the Valrico businessman who began making headlines in May with a strategy of extracting big profits from cheap tax deeds through threats, intimidation and what some called "legalized extortion."

    In south Pinellas, he bought submerged lands and said he would fence off docks if residents didn't pay up. In Tarpon Woods in north Pinellas, he bought a lakefront, erected a pink fence and put a $450,000 price tag on buying back the waterfront view.

    In Tampa, Connolly bought a tax deed for half of Luella Williams' house, then sued her, asking a judge to order her home sold so he could collect half the proceeds.

    Two weeks ago, Connolly announced he was slashing prices on his properties and selling almost every parcel he owned at cost in an effort to put the controversy behind him. On Wednesday, he conveyed the celebrated Tarpon Woods lakefront back to 15 owners, with the price reduced from $450,000 to $4,000.

    But in the court papers filed Friday, Ober suggests Connolly should have paid less attention to his real estate business and more to the terms of his probation stemming from a 1997 tax fraud case.

    Charged with violating probation by failing to report to his probation officer at least once during the month, Connolly claimed in a recent court hearing to have been too ill in February to report.

    Ober's office investigated. In that month, they found, Connolly handled a series of real estate transactions valued at $432,200, wrote numerous letters to the Tarpon Woods residents, bought half of Luella Williams' house and threatened to have an 87-year-old condominium owner evicted if she didn't buy the 2 feet of her property he had bought at a tax deed sale.

    Connolly also was well enough to visit a Clearwater broker to discuss taking control of his mother-in-law's annuity account. The broker reported, "Don Connolly looked good. He had a tan."

    Ober also was critical of Connolly's restitution record.

    In the 1997 tax case, agents discovered Connolly's Kinjite Motors used car business had underpaid sales taxes by $512,714. Connolly cut a deal, was placed on 15 years' probation and ordered to repay the state $124,328.

    But Connolly fell behind in that restitution by $18,927 during a period when he purchased more than $600,000 worth of real estate in his tax deed business, Ober wrote. Though Connolly did catch up, he "victimized the state of Florida by failing to make his restitution payments when he had the clear financial ability to do so," the memo says.

    Using Florida Department of Revenue research, the prosecutor went so far as to list what the $18,927 in delinquent payments might have bought, had the money been in state coffers: welfare for 12 children for a year, 4,990 Meals on Wheels for home-bound people, the expense of incarcerating one felon in a state prison for a year.

    In addition to violation of probation charges, Connolly faces a perjury charge when he appears Tuesday before Circuit Judge Debra K. Behnke. The felony charge, which carries a maximum five-year prison sentence, stems from Connolly's lying about his criminal past on a state application for a notary public license.

    Ober's memo adds new instances of Connolly violating Florida law with that notary license while on probation. It lists six transactions in which Connolly notarized a deed or mortgage document in which he had a direct financial interest.

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