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State won't prosecute over bribery accusations

By ANNE LINDBERG
Published December 17, 2006


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SEMINOLE - The state attorney has decided not to prosecute a mobile home activist who was accused of soliciting a bribe to settle a lawsuit between mobile home owners and a developer.

Leo Plenski, who had announced he would run for Seminole mayor, was accused of trying to sell his vote to a developer if elected and promising to make the Bay Pines Mobile Home Park Homeowners Association's lawsuit against the developer go away.

Plenski never took any money, but deputies who had wired developer John Loder during at least one meeting between the two, questioned Plenski and referred the case to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.

Thursday, assistant state attorney Bob Lewis said no charges will be filed.

"We looked it over, didn't think there was anything there we could file criminal charges on," Lewis said. "We reviewed everything they had. Some things aren't right, but they don't rise to the level of a crime."

But Plenski's troubles continue. A former friend has resigned from the local mobile home activist group FAIR FL because he believes Plenski may have used the organization's funds to pay an attorney to defend him against the bribery allegations.

"I no longer feel that I can contribute anything meaningful to help FAIR," Mike Rizzo wrote in his Dec. 8 resignation letter. "I do not wish to be part of any organization that is controlled by two people who may have resorted to criminal acts for their own personal gains."

Rizzo said a $5,000 check from FAIR's account was written on Oct. 6 to the law firm of Battaglia, Ross, Dicus & Wein to defend Plenski should bribery charges be filed.

Plenski was in the hospital Friday with heart problems and could not be reached for comment. But Dianne Miller, a FAIR co-founder and secretary treasurer, denied that any wrongdoing had taken place.

Check called 'necessary'

Miller, who co-signed the check, agreed that it had been written to Battaglia's firm to defend Plenski should bribery charges be filed. It was a Friday afternoon and there was no other check available, Miller said. The two believed it was necessary to give Battaglia a retainer in case Plenski was arrested over the weekend and the money was repaid the following Monday, she said.

Miller also added that she thought it would have been okay to take the money even if it had not been repaid because FAIR, or the Bay Pines Mobile Home Park Homeowners Association, could have been dragged into the situation. Plenski is the head of FAIR and the Bay Pines association.

"That money should have actually been paid by FAIR but it was decided not to, but it was personally taken care of within 24 hours," Miller said. "We've done nothing out of the way. It's not an issue. Period."

She also threatened to sue the Times if it printed this story.

Plenski and Miller founded FAIR FL, which stands for Floridians Against Injustice to Residents of Mobile/Manufactured Homes, to help defend mobile home owners against developers. The group was funded by donations from residents of mobile home parks across the county. Some residents even donated possessions that were sold at the Wagon Wheel Flea Market to help fund a war chest to oppose developers who were selling parks out from under the mobile home owners.

Rizzo became a member and was named to the board. For months, he and Plenski saw each other frequently and became friends. But the relationship became strained when the Travis family, which owns the Harbor Lights Mobile Home Park where Rizzo lives, offered a buyout. A majority of members of the homeowners association wanted to take the buyout and Rizzo, as head of the homeowners association board, voted to take it because he felt it was his duty to follow member wishes.

But the vote angered Plenski and Miller. Rizzo said they accused him of taking a bribe from the Travises.

Friday, Miller said FAIR voted Rizzo off the board in July because of that vote, which would have helped "screw the rest of the residents in Harbor Lights."

The deal fell through when Harbor Lights did not sell.

Another lawsuit filed

But a few weeks later, Plenski found himself in a similar situation at Bay Pines Mobile Home Park. The owners there sued and Plenski found himself talking to developer John Loder, who wanted to buy the park and close it.

Plenski and Loder talked several times and, on the advice of his attorney, Loder contacted deputies to say that Plenski had solicited a bribe.

At the time, Loder said that Plenski "told me he would sell me his vote, if he became mayor, he would vote for whatever I needed. ... He would undermine the lawsuit to make the lawsuit go away."

Deputies wired Loder and the two met at the McDonald's in Madeira Beach. Loder brought a paper bag stuffed with $50,000. Plenski did not take the money but deputies surrounded him and took him in for questioning. They released him and sent the case to the state attorney.

That's when Plenski hired Battaglia, who called assistant state attorney Lewis to ask that he be notified if Plenski was arrested. Lewis agreed.

[Last modified December 16, 2006, 21:21:17]


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