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Coe provided jobs, raises for his friend

Among the things the former state attorney gave Dudley Dickson was an administrative position that made him one of his office's best paid employees.

By GRAHAM BRINK, DAVID KARP and SUE CARLTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000


TAMPA -- Dudley Dickson was at Harry Lee Coe's side until the end, working at the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office in a job few of his colleagues will say much about.

Coe created jobs for his best friend, gave him generous raises, hired his daughter and doubled his pay rate when health problems affected his hours.

His $76,000 salary is one of the highest in the office.

"He's not replaceable," Coe once said of Dickson. "He's just been a wonderfully loyal employee and a great friend."

Dickson's odd employment history exemplifies the importance Coe placed on loyalty, and how he sometimes used his office to reward that loyalty at the public's expense.

The St. Petersburg Times revealed last week that Coe had given generous raises to two other long-time employees after they had loaned him $12,000.

Coe's suicide two weeks ago left more questions than answers. There was talk of gambling debts and depression, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement continues to investigate the employee loans and whether Coe concealed public records from the press.

FDLE agents have questioned Dickson, but there's no suggestion he has any knowledge of what led Coe to sit against a cement pillar under the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway and put a .38-caliber revolver to his head.

When asked if he had loaned Coe any money lately, Dickson said he had not. He would not answer any other questions.

"I am really overwhelmed," he said. "I really don't have a minute.

"I work hard every day," he added.

Citing the FDLE investigation, newly appointed State Attorney Jack Rudy would not talk about Dickson or describe his job.

Current and former employees suggest Coe was closer to Dickson than any other person inside or outside the State Attorney's Office. It was Dickson who ran Coe's first campaign for state attorney, in 1992.

"Dudley was his right-hand man," said Len Register, a former top administrator for Coe. "He was just an extension of Harry, they were so close."

They met 30 years ago when Dickson went to the State Attorney's Office to drum up contracts for his fledgling polygraph business.

Dickson had previously worked for a detective agency and as a theater usher after graduating from Hillsborough High School in 1946 and Lee College, a Church of God school in Cleveland, Tenn., in 1968. He later earned a master's degree in gerontology from the University of South Florida.

Coe, an up-and-coming prosecutor at the time, met with Dickson and began directing polygraph work his way. More important, a friendship was born.

In the 1980s, when Coe was a judge known as Hangin' Harry, he had a fondness for lie detector tests. Coe often made the tests a condition of probation, just like getting a job, paying restitution or staying off drugs.

The probation forms routinely read "Lie Box (Dudley Dickson)," directing those on probation to Dickson, who collected a fee.

When Coe became state attorney in 1993, he created the position of office polygraph examiner and gave the job to Dickson at $50,000 a year. Coe gave him a state car, and wrote a note authorizing Dickson to carry a concealed weapon, even though he didn't have a permit.

It was a rare job; just two of the 20 state attorney's offices in Florida had a polygraph examiner on staff then, and now.

"The standing orders were obviously that (Dickson) would be the only one doing polygraphs," Register said.

Within a year, Dickson cut back to three days a week. Soon after, he decided to retire, citing health problems. Coe didn't hire a replacement.

A year later, in August 1995, Coe created the job of administrator of the elder abuse task force, a multiagency group that protects senior citizens from scams, and gave it to Dickson at $17,000 a year.

Less than a year later, when Dickson cut back to 20 hours a week, Coe doubled his pay rate.

Six months later, Dickson returned to work full-time and his salary was increased to almost $52,000.

In April 1997, Dickson retired a second time, citing family reasons. Coe did not fill his position.

Less than a year later, Dickson came out of retirement yet again. Coe changed his job classification to administrator V, which "better reflects his current tasks" with the elder abuse task force, according to Dickson's personnel file.

The state's description of an administrator V says a job candidate should have five years' experience working on policy issues. An administrator V is expected to direct the operation of a large unit of the office, and analyze and make changes to policies, rules and regulations.

Dickson, 71, has no experience working with policy issues, according to his employment record, and has never supervised anyone at the office.

His new job pays $76,000, making him one of the best paid non-lawyers in an office of about 300 employees. Even including lawyers, he is the 25th highest-paid employee in the office.

"Everything you see with Dudley would have been done specifically by Judge Coe," the office's executive director, James Strickland, said recently.

And that extended to Dickson's family.

Coe hired Dickson's daughter, Martha, who has a two-year degree from Daytona Beach Community College, as a crime scene analyst in 1993. Coe twice gave her special pay raises, adding about $3,000 to her annual $22,200 salary.

Last June, Dickson's son, Dudley Grant, was charged with stealing about $2,000 from an elderly woman. Coe said he was too close to Dickson to oversee the prosecution, and asked Gov. Jeb Bush to appoint a special prosecutor.

At Coe's funeral, a subdued and emotional Dickson stood before the large crowd and joked that the sausages Coe brought to a recent campaign event and claimed to have made himself were actually the creation of Dickson's wife.

"He did supervise . . . he played a big role," Dickson assured the audience to big laughs.

Dickson reminisced about how they shared cookies and lemonade and endless laughs. Coe even saved Dickson's life last year by forcing him to go to the hospital when chest pains wouldn't subside.

"Oh my, my," Dickson said at the funeral. "What wonderful memories we shared."

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