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Mayor copes with relatives' decade-old fraud case

Rick Baker's father and brothers were prosecuted in a high-profile defense contracting fraud case.

By BRYAN GILMER and JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2001


Rick Baker's father and brothers were prosecuted in a high-profile defense contracting fraud case.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Ten years ago, three Hillsborough County men were prosecuted in federal court in a high-profile defense contracting fraud case.

They are the father and older brothers of newly elected St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker.

Baker found himself having to confront that dark chapter of his family history Tuesday, nine days into his term as the city's chief executive officer.

In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Baker stressed that he had no role in the scandal, and he said he did not disclose it during his campaign because he felt it had no relevance and only would cause his family more pain.

"It was something I wasn't involved in, and it was 10 years ago, and I didn't know what the relevance would be," Baker said, lamenting that the case is being revisited publicly. "I had no knowledge or involvement in that at all until after it blew up."

Baker's father and brothers were top executives and his father a part owner of a Tampa company called Aerodyne Investment Castings Inc. Aerodyne made parts for U.S. military aircraft and tank engines, using scrap metal when specifications called for newly refined metal.

The corporation pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a fine.

The brothers each served more than a year in prison for money laundering and for directing more than $500,000 of Aerodyne's money to an Indiana company in which they each secretly owned 47.5 percent.

They falsely told Aerodyne board members the money was for contract finders' fees when, in fact, they had procured the contracts themselves and had already been paid salaries that included such work.

Their father, Russell K. Baker Sr., was acquitted on related conspiracy and mail fraud charges, but said he pleaded guilty to making a false statement and served brief house arrest and paid a $75,000 fine.

Mayor Baker said he tried to "provide emotional support" to his relatives and to refrain from judging them when the FBI and prosecutors made their allegations public between 1988 and 1991. At the time, Baker was practicing law at the Fisher and Sauls firm in St. Petersburg.

Baker said he worked as a sandblaster at the company in the late 1970s while a student.

Later, as a lawyer, he handled "not a significant" amount of real estate law for an Aerodyne affiliate. He said he had no indication of untoward activity at Aerodyne before the federal investigation.

Baker's family connection came to light the night before the March 27 general election, when an anonymous e-mail arrived at the Times, too late to verify and publish before the election.

"Consider the political mailings that you get in the final days before an election or the stories of so-called push polls done to diminish an opposing candidate," Times Editor and President Paul C. Tash said. "We don't want the newspaper to be used the same way."

In 1989, the case against the three Bakers and Aerodyne was big news locally and nationally, as people envisioned a military aircraft engine failing at a critical moment because of a substandard part.

The company saved money on raw metal by re-melting trimmings from cast parts. It was supposed to use 100 percent newly refined metal.

"It made the lead story on ABC News Tonight when the indictment came down," said former federal prosecutor Andrew Grosso, who handled the case for the government and now is in private practice in Washington, D.C. "You were talking about the health and safety of the U.S. military."

But Baker Sr., 75, of Odessa said the reused metal was not of lower quality than virgin metal, and that the resulting parts were of superior quality.

Grosso said Rick Baker's name never came up during the trial of his brothers and father.

Baker's oldest brother, Russell K. Baker Jr., now 52, of Valrico, served nearly two years in federal custody, ending Nov. 4, 1993. Brother Roger L. Baker, 46, of Odessa served just more than 15 months and was released in January 1993, federal prison records show. They served most of their time at a prison camp at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City.

Neither brother could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Their father said, "As far as I'm concerned, they never did anything wrong."

Mayor Baker, 44, said he realizes that his life is subject to scrutiny because he holds a public job in which he wields executive authority over a city that collects and spends more than $400-million per year. But he regrets that the scrutiny spills over to his father and brothers.

"They've worked hard to rebuild their lives and I'm proud of them for doing it," Baker said. "If this does become public again, I feel like I'm responsible for them having to go through it again."

Baker's father said he regretted the retelling of the case, too.

"I feel terrible that this comes out and in any way affects his performance or his feelings," Russell Baker Sr. said of Mayor Baker.

Tash said the newspaper feels a duty to tell readers about the family connections and let them draw their own conclusions.

"He's the mayor," Tash said. "His constituents have the right to expect that we'll tell them things about the mayor which might contribute to their picture of him. When it's a close question, we'd rather err on the side of disclosure."

Lorraine Margeson, a member of the campaign team of Baker's general election opponent, Kathleen Ford, said she received a copy of an e-mail about the Aerodyne case that was sent to Ford the same day the Times received its e-mail. She wouldn't say who sent it to her.

Margeson said she reacted strongly.

"I wish this had come out prior to the election," Margeson said. "It opens up a can-of-worms issue about someone who's going to be mayor. That doesn't mean he does or doesn't deserve to be mayor. But it's information that should be able to be considered by the public. It often is when other people are running for office."

Even after the election, the information remains important, Margeson said.

"It's relevant now because as a person who's going to be over government contracting with the city, and to have that kind of history in the family, it's something I'd want to know about as a voter," she said.

Ford, who is vacationing in North Carolina, could not be reached for comment.

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett and staff writer Leonora LaPeter contributed to this report.

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