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Coe got raises for his employee lenders

Harry Lee Coe III ordered special pay raises for Deanna Easterling and Bill Stevens six months after he borrowed $12,000 from them.

By DAVID KARP and GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 26, 2000


TAMPA -- Six months after he borrowed $12,000 from two top employees, Hillsborough State Attorney Harry Lee Coe III ordered that both employees receive special pay raises.

In January 1999, Coe borrowed $5,000 from Human Resource Director Deanna Easterling and $7,000 from Chief Investigator Bill Stevens for reasons he only would say were personal. Six months later, in July, Coe raised Easterling's $70,000 salary by $4,999 -- virtually the same amount as her loan. Coe boosted Stevens' salary by $2,915 to $80,000.

In October 1999, both employees got another raise -- their annual state-mandated pay adjustments. Easterling's salary went up an additional $2,100. Stevens' salary rose $2,240.

Coe killed himself two weeks ago, shortly after Gov. Jeb Bush ordered an investigation into the loans.

Three days before his death, Coe told the St. Petersburg Times that he had asked Easterling and Stevens for the loans because they were "lifelong friends." Coe did not think the loans were a problem because he said he did not supervise Easterling or Stevens or oversee their salaries.

But Coe played a direct role in giving Easterling and Stevens raises in July 1999, said James Strickland, executive director of the State Attorney's Office. Coe came into Strickland's office and told him to implement the merit pay raises.

"That is the state attorney's prerogative," Strickland said Tuesday.

Strickland wrote memos for both employees' personnel files making it clear that the increases were awarded at "the specific direction of the state attorney."

In the memo for Stevens' file, Strickland said Stevens' raise "had been planned for a goodly length of time" to bring his salary up to a level that Coe wanted. But on Tuesday, Strickland said he did not know about any plan to eventually raise Stevens' salary to $80,000. In the memo for Easterling's file, Strickland said her raise had been planned "for some time." On Tuesday, Strickland said he was not aware of any such plan, and simply processed the raise at Coe's request.

"I just did what he said," Strickland said. "They were perfectly legitimate" raises, he added.

Stevens declined to be interviewed by the Times Tuesday. Easterling was out of town and could not be reached.

Easterling, who was Coe's longtime judicial assistant when he was a judge, began at the State Attorney's Office in 1996, making $60,000 a year. Easterling was hired even though she had only completed two years at Florida Central College, studying court reporting and administration.

At the time, Strickland said Easterling's 35 years of work in the courthouse would satisfy the position's requirements.

Stevens began working for Coe in 1993 as an investigator earning $43,500 a year. When he retired at age 62 earlier this month, Stevens' salary of $82,240 was well above the state average of $72,307 for an investigator at Stevens' level, according to the state's Justice Administrative Commission.

Strickland said he could not recall Coe personally ordering raises for anyone else in the office of about 300 employees in 1999.

From time to time, Coe would take a personal interest in ordering raises for a few employees, Strickland said. In 1997, he said Coe ordered a $5,000 raise and promotion for Bill Reynolds, the information systems director who oversaw the office's computers.

"It was ad hoc," Strickland said about Coe's involvement in raises.

To see if Coe had specifically ordered any other merit raises since 1996, the Times examined salary records for employees of the state attorney's office who earn more than $50,000. Of the 69 employees who earn more than $50,000, only seven had received merit raises since 1996. (Lawyers in the office generally increase their pay by getting promoted, rather than by merit raises.)

None of these seven merit raises was ordered at Coe's specific direction, according to the personnel records.

About a year after Coe borrowed the $5,000 from Easterling, his relationship with her began to deteriorate. Easterling's daughter, Stacey, a prosecutor in Coe's office, had decided to run against Hillsborough County Commissioner Ben Wacksman, one of Coe's allies. Coe, a Democrat, refused to support Stacey Easterling's campaign since she was running as a Republican.

Coe's relationship with Easterling further soured when Coe praised Wacksman at a political fundraiser. As one of his last acts, Coe sent a letter to Tallahassee firing Easterling.

Assistant State Attorney Craig Clendinen, a longtime Wacksman supporter, also came to odds with Easterling. She wrote memos in January that outlined problems two secretaries said they were having with Clendinen. The secretaries, according to the memos, thought Clendinen was making them perform tasks outside of their job descriptions, that he was disorganized and didn't treat his colleagues with respect. On the whole, the memos suggested, he wasn't a very good boss.

The secretaries later disputed some of what appeared in the memos, and Clendinen was cleared of any wrongdoing in an internal investigation.

"It was absolutely politically motivated," Clendinen said Tuesday. "Just look at who authored the memo."

Karen Stanley, Coe's second-in-command who resigned in March after having her own problems with Deanna Easterling, said in a recent interview that Stacey Easterling's entrance into the race "created a bit of difficulty" inside Coe's office.

"There were attorneys over there saying not positive things about Stacey's campaign," Stanley said, "and Deanna went on the warpath against them."

-- Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com. David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com. Times staff writers Sue Carlton and Dan DeWitt contributed to this report.

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