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Sheriff's race raises question of conflicts

As one homegrown candidate sets records with his fundraising, critics wonder how he'll stay impartial if he wins.

By SHANNONCOLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published November 16, 2003

David Gee found himself in an awkward position after a helicopter crashed in Balm last month, killing a Lakeland alligator trapper and a well-known strawberry farmer.

The sheriff's chief deputy wasn't just a longtime friend to pilot Donn Goodson's brother. The Goodson family, known for its roadside strawberry shortcake stand in Balm, recently contributed $3,500 to Gee's campaign for sheriff.

Seeing the potential conflict, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office turned its criminal investigation of the crash over to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

This week, Gee said the move was an exercise in extreme caution, made in part because the four-man race to replace Sheriff Cal Henderson is such a high-profile affair.

But some worry the Goodson decision sets a dangerous precedent, given the record-setting amount of campaign money Gee has raised so far - much of it from childhood buddies, former teachers and family friends.

"This isn't just about Goodson," said Republican opponent Kevin Fitzpatrick, a former sheriff's lieutenant who retired after 29 years to enter the race.

"What if another contributor on Gee's list runs into somebody at an intersection here and kills someone? Do you hand that case off, too?"

Political experts say the Goodson incident illustrates the ethical tightrope law enforcement candidates walk with aggressive, glitzy campaigns.

The public expects county sheriffs, judges and state attorneys to be impartial. But as candidates, they need money to reach potential voters.

"It takes money to get your name and platform out there, and it takes a lot of it in a big county like this one," University of South Florida political science professor Susan McManus said. "As long as we have this system of elected sheriffs, law enforcement candidates will walk on legal and ethical eggshells."

* * *

Gee's eggshells are especially fragile because he has spent his entire life working and raising a family in Hillsborough County, said former City Council member Scott Paine, an associate professor of communication, government and world affairs at the University of Tampa.

"When you have a native son or daughter running for a position that deals with potentially investigating old friends later on, that's another thing to deal with on top of the money issue," Paine said.

Gee was born in Plant City and was raised in Lithia. He lives five minutes from his parents' home.

He played in the local Little League, worked for southern Hillsborough farmers as a teen, graduated from Brandon High School and started working at the Sheriff's Office after graduation. Now 44 and a married father of three, Gee has been with the department for a quarter-century.

The Goodson family is just one of many large donors to Gee's campaign, which raised more than $350,000 between February and Sept. 15, mostly coming from $500 and $250 checks.

He got support from some of Hillsborough's heaviest hitters: Henderson, former baseball star Wade Boggs, Outback Steakhouse co-owner Chris Sullivan, Republican activists Ralph Hughes and Sam Rashid and Buccaneer Warren Sapp.

But Gee also received money from lesser known people in southern Hillsborough who, like the Goodsons, have some sort of personal connection to the candidate or his family.

The Noriega family, which owns Bill's Prescription Services in Brandon, donated $2,000. Gee's wife, Rhonda, used to work there, and Gee has known the Noriegas for years.

Southern Hillsborough citrus farmer Doug Holmberg, Gee's agriculture teacher in junior high, gave $500. Gee remembers working for Holmberg on Saturdays during junior high, earning $50 a day for budding Holberg's citrus trees.

Gee said plenty also came from people he doesn't know personally, through picnics and other campaign events. But even those donations aren't immune to scrutiny.

In February, Gee's campaign received a $250 check from Southern Septic & Sewer Inc., a small company based in Ruskin. Five months later, one of Southern Septic's drivers crashed into three women from one family, killing all instantly.

The driver of the 10-ton 1973 Ford truck was not charged, after the Sheriff's Office and Department of Transportation determined he was exposed to disorienting carbon monoxide fumes leaking into the cab of the truck through a hole in the floor.

Gee said this week that he doesn't know the company and reiterated that the Sheriff's Office can investigate without bias even if his campaign got money from the company.

The Goodson case is unique, he said, because Donn Goodson's brother Butch, a former canine unit deputy, trained Gee when he was a rookie and remained a friend.

"That added another dimension to the situation" that had nothing to do with money, he said.

"People who know me know that $500, $1,000, whatever is not a get-out-of-jail-free card," said Gee, who got seven $500 checks from Goodson family members and the farming business.

"I was just trying to do an up-front thing here, recognizing what could be seen as a possible conflict."

* * *

Gee's situation is not unique, Paine said. And it's becoming more and more common because of the huge sums now spent on local races.

"County sheriffs, state attorneys, judges - certainly they operate in a universe where we have high expectations of impartiality," Paine said. "So asking people for money is an awkward thing for people in those positions."

Gee's fundraising is setting a new record.

He still has nine months before the Aug. 31 Republican primary against Fitzpatrick and retired FBI agent Lane M. Bonner of Plant City. The winner will face sole Democratic contender Mike Trentalange, a Tampa lawyer.

As of Sept. 15, Gee collected more than 1,200 cash and in-kind contributions totaling $353,204. That's $100,000 more than Henderson raised in 2000 and more than former sheriffs Walter Heinrich or Malcolm Beard ever collected.

The only one to come close to Gee is Trentalange, who through Sept. 15 raised $105,570, including a $70,000 personal loan.

Gee views his robust campaign fund as a gauge of his political strength. But he also believes he'll need every penny of it to win.

Just look at what Pam Iorio spent on her successful mayoral campaign last year, Gee said.

"She raised and spent almost half a million dollars in two months. And her constituency is much smaller," he said.

Political consultant Wayne Garcia, who is working for Gee, said candidates no longer can rely on door-to-door, grassroots campaigning. Mass mailings, television and radio commercials, and looming billboard ads are becoming virtual must-haves.

"The races are harder fought, and the media doesn't cover politics like they used to, so candidates have to pay to get their message out," Garcia said.

"You can easily spend a half a million. The amount of money David has raised is not out of line."

Paine said the media is partly responsible for the expensive turn of local campaigns.

"Once candidates set these new records for raising money, the media begins to look at that as a measure of how serious a candidate is," he said.

Trentalange has expressed concerns about the difficulty in raising money. But even he doesn't fault Gee for wanting to build up a healthy war chest.

"As long as people have to pay for media time, money is going to be a necessary political evil in a race like this," Trentalange said. "Someone who is in a position of incumbency is already in a position to get press.

"But if you're David Gee and people want to give you money, you don't know what you're going to need down the road, so you take it."

- Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 661-2443 or svansickler@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 16, 2003, 01:34:40]


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