Gallagher, 3 employees face ethics complaints
At issue is a business dispute between an airplane mechanic and a pilot with Gallagher ties.
By JONI JAMES
Published April 5, 2006
TALLAHASSEE - A Lake City man has filed ethics complaints against Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher and three of his employees, alleging they misused their public positions in 2003 by their involvement in a business dispute the man had with a Gallagher friend.
The four complaints stem from a failed business relationship between airplane mechanic William Schretzmann and Jay Vass, a Lake City pilot who has provided chartered air service for Florida Republican campaigns, including Gallagher's.
Schretzmann and Vass are embroiled in a 3-year-old lawsuit filed in Suwannee County. In November, Gallagher testified at the trial. A onetime flying student of Vass', Gallagher initially planned to be an investor in Vass' charter business.
"I am out of resources to fight this injustice," Schretzmann wrote in his complaints last month to the Ethics Commission, which he provided to the St. Petersburg Times . "I have realized that I cannot bring these people to justice through civil litigation. I am now asking for your help."
Vass' attorney, Steven R. Andrews, contends Schretzmann is exploiting his client's friendship with a politician in hopes of winning a settlement.
"Gallagher didn't do anything wrong, Jay (Vass) didn't do anything wrong," he said. "It was a business dispute. Schretzmann is just trying to get paid, and Jay doesn't want to pay him money he's not owed."
Schretzmann's lawsuit alleges Vass owes him tens of thousands of dollars for repair work he did on airplanes belonging to Vass or his clients, including another longtime Gallagher friend, prominent Republican fundraiser Dick Mandt of Tampa.
In three of the four ethics complaints, Schretzmann accuses Gallagher and Department of Financial Services employees of improperly investigating his attempt to collect a portion of an insurance claim due Mandt's company, MBA Graphics. Schretzmann did repair work on Mandt's plane after it was damaged in a landing.
Schretzmann said he later settled with MBA Graphics for $27,000. Mandt couldn't be reached for comment.
Gallagher, a Republican candidate for governor, denies he or his fraud investigators did anything wrong. Four months after the investigation began, it was deemed a civil matter and was closed.
Schretzmann's fourth complaint says another Gallagher employee and Vass friend, state fire marshal detective W. Robert Johnson, misused his authority by intervening in the dispute. The department's inspector general is investigating Johnson's actions, spokeswoman Tami Torres said.
Gallagher, in an e-mail to the Times, declined a request for an interview. In court depositions, Vass testified that Gallagher decided against going into business with him after Laura Gallagher objected. Gallagher's wife is opposed to his learning to fly.
"I do not want to get into a situation of providing fodder for a frivolous complaint that has been filed in relation to a legal dispute between a pilot and his mechanic," Gallagher wrote.
Vass has said in court depositions that Schretzmann was appropriately compensated for his work, in part by receiving free rent at a hanger Vass leased. The suit is currently in court-ordered arbitration. The business relationship went sour in early 2003. Around that time, Schretzmann took possession of log books for both Vass and Mandt's planes and said he would return them when he was paid.
Vass asked his longtime friend and former Suwannee County deputy sheriff, Johnson, to try to convince Schretzmann to return the logs. Johnson said he conferred with the state attorney's office and concluded Schretzmann may have been guilty of theft. Schretzmann eventually returned the books before filing his lawsuit.
Johnson explained his role in the matter in a March 2003 letter to the Federal Aviation Administration. Though not on state letterhead, Johnson attached his business card and included his state title in the letter. Johnson said in a subsequent deposition he was acting as an individual, not a Financial Services Department employee.
Vass later filed a complaint with the Suwannee County sheriff's office alleging Schretzmann had taken various airplane parts and equipment. The state attorney declined to prosecute.
[Last modified April 5, 2006, 00:36:08]
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