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Court held state attorney hopeful in contempt

Republican candidate Mark Ober was in legal trouble in 1992 for refusing to pay child support required by a divorce settlement.

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2000


TAMPA -- Mark Ober signed a standard agreement to provide child support and cover medical expenses for his two children when he divorced in 1986.

Less than a year later, Ober fell behind, court records show. His ex-wife filed documents asking him to pay up. He refused, and a judge ordered Ober to pay. He refused again.

Eventually, the judge held Ober, then a private defense lawyer, in contempt of court, saying he willfully held back $2,154 in child support and medical expenses out of anger.

Ober, now a Republican candidate for Hillsborough County state attorney, said this week that he was in a dispute with his ex-wife over how to remedy his son's learning difficulties. Since his ex-wife had primary custody, Ober said, he thought withholding the money was the only way to get his views heard.

In retrospect, he said, he should not have withheld the money for so long, but still thinks he was doing what was right for his son.

"It was never about the money," said Ober, 48. "I wanted him to get the best education he could."

Ober married Carol Ann Westfall in June 1972 in Hillsborough County. In 1976, they had a daughter, followed by a son four years later. At the time, Ober was an assistant state attorney in Hillsborough. Later, he headed up the State Attorney's Office homicide unit.

In 1986, they divorced, stating in court documents that the marriage was irretrievably broken. In a written settlement, the Obers agreed that Mrs. Ober, who remained in Hillsborough, received primary residential care of the two children. Ober received liberal visitation rights.

Ober was to pay his ex-wife $500 a month in alimony for three years and $500 a month in child support for each child until they reached 18 years old. Ober agreed to maintain life insurance, share in the cost of the children's college and help pay some of his ex-wife's legal bills.

The settlement also stated that Ober would pay for all dental, orthodontic and medical expenses, including speech therapy classes for his son. The settlement stated that Ober should be notified of the nature and extent of the treatment.

Less than a year later, in 1987, Ober's ex-wife filed an order claiming that Ober missed some of the payments. By this time, Ober had set up a private law practice.

In 1991, Mrs. Ober filed another notice complaining that her ex-husband had again failed to make child support and speech therapy payments. Letters from creditors, including the speech therapy clinic, were entered in the court file.

"I find your lack of concern for your own son's well-being shameful and reprehensible," Mrs. Ober wrote.

Ober said that both he and his ex-wife had their son's best interest in mind; they simply had a philosophical difference about the treatment. Ober said he wanted to get his son into a more comprehensive learning environment, where he would improve his reading, not just his speech.

Ober said his ex-wife thought their son was happy in speech therapy. Ober didn't think his son would be happy in the long run if he didn't significantly improve his reading. Neither wanted to budge, Ober said.

"I didn't want to pay the money for something I didn't think was going to work," he said. "I knew not paying would bring things to a head and a judge would get to hear my side. It didn't work out."

On Sept. 14, 1992, Circuit Judge James Whittemore signed the order holding Ober in contempt for refusing to pay child support and the speech therapy bills. The judge wrote that Ober "chose out of anger" to hold back the money.

Whittemore said he would withhold a finding of guilt against Ober provided he pay $1,144 in child support and $1,010 in speech therapy bills, plus interest, within a year.

Parents trying to collect unpaid child support have several legal remedies, including attaching liens to property, collecting from tax refunds and garnishing wages. Many get help from the Florida Department of Revenue, which oversees more than 800,000 cases.

In extreme cases, the State Attorney's Office will prosecute defendants on charges of failing to obey a court order or a criminal contempt charge. Ober's case never reached that point. Instead, he made good on the debt, avoiding any further repercussions from the judge, court records show.

In 1996, as Ober's private practice flourished, his ex-wife sought to increase the child support payments. Ober countered, seeking to take primary custody of his son. He said in court documents that his ex-wife was not providing his son the proper attention or educational support. The judge ordered that the ex-wife should retain primary custody and that child support should be raised to $1,049 a month.

Ober saw the ruling as a victory, however, since the revised agreement provided that his son attend Huntington, a comprehensive learning center. Ober paid for the classes.

The son, now 19, lives with Ober in South Tampa. He still has some difficulty reading but his speech is fine. He holds a full-time job at Publix and hasn't ruled out going to college.

"I shut up when he went over to Huntington," Ober said. "To some degree that accomplished what I set out to do."

The state attorney is the chief prosecutor in the county and oversees more than 100 attorneys and a $17-million budget.

Ober will face local lawyer Bill Jennings, a former Polk County prosecutor, in the Republican primary for state attorney. Last month, the Times reported allegations of harassment made against Jennings by a Polk sheriff's detective who said Jennings pursued her after the breakup of her marriage. Jennings resigned as a prosecutor days after the allegations were brought to his boss. He said he left to spend more time with his family in Tampa.

On the Democratic side, the Times reported last year that incumbent State Attorney Harry Lee Coe fell behind by $8,000 in child support payments. He made up the difference after his ex-wife filed court documents outlining the problem.

The general election is Nov. 7.

- Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com.

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