A Tampa scion veers astray
By ABBIE VANSICKLE
Published November 3, 2006
[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
Hillsborough Tax Collector Doug Belden apologizes last week in Tampa to the woman who accused him of groping her.
Julie Irwin asked police Thursday not to press criminal charges against Belden.
TAMPA - The day after Hillsborough's tax collector apologized amid allegations that he groped a woman in a Tampa bar, the phone rang at Doug Belden's townhouse on Harbour Island.
His former maid Eula Jackson, 78, wanted an explanation.
"I called and told him to go to the Bible," she said.
Tampa's former mayor, Dick Greco, called Belden, too, telling him, "Dougie, I love you."
Before the night at Jackson's Bistro, those who had watched Belden grow up thought he was doing so well. The child of a Florida football star and a beauty queen, Belden, 52, was born into a well-known Tampa family with big shoes to fill.
It had taken him years to find his footing. When he was elected tax collector, he seemed to be building his own legacy. But the recent misstep at Jackson's raised questions about Belden in a very public way.
Police and prosecutors are still sorting out accusations that he groped Julie Irwin, 38. Belden has apologized and admitted an alcohol problem.
"None of it should have happened, period, a portion of it or the whole thing," Greco said. "Something must have happened or he wouldn't have apologized. If a couple of drinks makes you do something like this, you better never drink. It's just stupid."
The episode has left Belden, father of a 15-year-old Plant High School freshman, shaken and embarrassed, Greco said.
"He's very, very concerned about what's happened. He really is truly sorry," Greco said. "I think people need to be forgiving and understanding."
In a lengthy interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Belden talked about what defines him. He agreed to the interview on the condition that he would not discuss his drinking problem or Jackson's. His assistant and close friend, Preston Trigg, listened in.
A prominent family
To understand Belden, it's important to understand his family. From his grandfather, an Olympic gold medalist in boxing and a surgeon, to his father, a four-sport letterman at the University of Florida and Tampa's youngest City Council member, Belden's role models stressed excellence.
"All of them were very prominent people, very involved in the community," Greco said.
Born in 1954, Douglas Ray Belden Jr. was the eldest of four children. He and his three sisters, Colleen Frasca, Laura Leigh Martin and Sharon Polo, a former Miss Florida, remain close.
He attended the private Boys Academy now the Academy of Holy Names and Tampa Catholic School. He shared none of the athletic prowess of his family, but, academically, he planned to follow his grandfather and become a doctor.
Those close to him say Belden's life dramatically changed with the 1971 death of his father. Belden Sr. died after suffering a brain aneurysm on the golf course at Palma Ceia Golf & Country Club. His mother, Jeanne Flynn Belden, died of breast cancer a few years later.
Belden cared for his sisters and looked to his grandfather for guidance.
He enrolled in the University of South Florida as a pre-med student but later switched to anthropology.
"I went through so much personal tragedy, I changed during those years," he said.
Afterward, he dabbled in business, benefiting from family connections.
In 1992, he was partner in a real estate company that sought protection in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Belden says the filing was necessary to protect investors.
His early business experiences helped prepare him to succeed as tax collector, he said.
"Being in the private sector and being 25, I've got to minimize my risk," he said, explaining. "I don't have a father and mother to go back to bail me out. It's just me."
In 1996, he landed a job at the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, supervising the Elderly Abuse Task Force. And, in 1998, he ran successfully for tax collector, where he oversees a budget of $23.5-million and earns $147,862 annually.
Belden's personal life grew along with his career. In 1987, he married Patricia Cowart, an administrative assistant for a real estate company.
In 1996, the marriage soured, and the Beldens divorced. A judge gave Doug Belden primary custody of their son, Douglas Edward Belden.
The father and son share Belden's townhome, a tidy oasis decorated with Asian-style furniture and family heirlooms and photographs.
Belden's ex-wife declined to be interviewed.
His political campaign was built on family connections.
Steve Guggino, 81, and his wife, Dee, 82, helped sponsor a spaghetti dinner for Belden during the first campaign.
"Have you checked his records since he's been the tax collector?" Steve Guggino said. "At one time you had to wait an hour in there, now you wait 15 minutes. I love the man."
People don't complain about Belden's professionalism. He has made it faster and easier to do business. He improved online service and addressed the needs of Spanish speakers.
"My philosophy in management is if it ain't broke, tweak it," he said.
His efforts brought state recognition to the office, and employee morale is high, surveys show.
"I think he's brought that office into the 21st century," said Joe F. Diaz, 70, a dentist who contributed to Belden's last campaign.
Belden's devotion to the job surprised even close supporters.
"He's always had an interest in politics," said George Levy, 73, who ran Greco's mayoral campaign. "I think he's done an outstanding job. I knew he'd do a good job, but I did not know it would be to the degree that he's done."
A crafted image
The image of a polished, efficient businessman is one that pleases Belden.
"I want to be recognized as a public servant who kept a campaign promise from Day 1, recognized as a hard worker, one of the most productive, effective public servants in county and state government and retiring with the understanding that I did my very best," he said.
He's an early riser, who goes to bed after watching the O'Reilly Factor. His reading list is all executive self-help titles, like The 360 Degree Leader, The Effective Executive and Now, Discover Your Strengths.
He attends Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church and says he prays for guidance during his morning walk on Bayshore Boulevard.
Belden also has a girlfriend, Nancy Yanez, 48, the chief deputy courts administrator for Hillsborough. They have been together about nine months, after a business meeting became something more.
"He's probably got one of the biggest hearts of anyone that I've ever met," she said.
Yanez, also a Tampa native, has known Belden for years. She declined to talk about his drinking habits or her feelings about his behavior at Jackson's, saying, "Those are all personal issues."
She described the relationship as quiet and domestic.
She says his son is his top priority. "He is my absolute heart and soul," Belden said. "He is my best friend."
'Pray for Doug'
By all accounts, Belden the father is generous and Belden the public servant is dedicated.
Who, then, was the man who treated Julie Irwin so rudely that night at Jackson's, touching her against her will and flashing his government business card?
Belden, who has said he plans to seek professional help for alcohol abuse, won't discuss that aspect of his life.
Neither will his friend Trigg, the $99,000-a-year county employee who maintains that he saw nothing improper.
As Julie Irwin left police headquarters Thursday after requesting no charges be filed, she said she hoped the whole ordeal would soon end.
"It's been surreal," she said. "I've never been through anything like this in my life."
For Irwin, the matter will likely end if prosecutors drop the criminal complaint.
But perhaps not for Belden, up for re-election in 2008.
"If you've ever prayed in your life, pray for Doug," Jackson told a reporter. "A lot of people thought Doug wasn't going to make it as far as he made it, but he did."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which used information from Times files. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3373.
[Last modified November 3, 2006, 01:50:58]
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