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Report: Coe ensnared friends in coverup

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000


TAMPA -- On the last weekend of Harry Lee Coe's life, the Hillsborough County state attorney huddled in his office with top aides.

WFLA-Ch.8 reporter Steve Andrews was set to air on Monday a report on loans Coe had received from office employees. Andrews had also been asking about Coe's gambling and his use of an office computer to visit gambling Web sites. Coe had denied on camera the accusation about Web sites, and his lies were about to be broadcast on the evening news.

Coe, who seemed depressed, talked about resigning. The group talked about what Coe should do. In the end, Coe decided to keep quiet.

Within days, Andrews' story would run, the state would begin an investigation, and Coe, 68, would kill himself.

The scene of Coe's weekend meeting, detailed in newly released pages of a Florida Department of Law Enforcement report into his death and finances, reveals the extent of Coe's effort to orchestrate a coverup.

The report shows Coe instructed an employee to break the law, lied to other employees and asked an aide to investigate who had betrayed him.

It also reveals how Coe's employees were drawn into the coverup, mixing politics and professional roles and putting their loyalty to a friend ahead of their duty to the public.

Cleaning up the computer

At a dog track in early 1999, Coe watched his friend study a piece of paper. Ann Mary Bhasin, 60, who often dined with Coe before trips to the dog track, had compiled information from the Internet about the races.

Soon after, Coe learned how to find the American Greyhound Racing Archive Web site on his office computer. The site contains volumes of data on dogs and tracks, and allowed Coe to see videos of the previous night's dog races; he often left the track early after placing bets.

Coe was inexperienced with computers, and he told Bhasin that he had someone at the office set up his laptop. Late at night, he would frequently call Bhasin's husband at his Clearwater Beach home for computer help. Coe couldn't save, send or delete e-mail. He frequently forgot his password.

In early 2000, Andrews, the reporter, got a tip about Coe's gambling and learned details few could have known, such as Coe's computer user name.

On April 26, Andrews faxed a public records request for a history of the Web sites Coe had visited on his office laptop. The same day, Coe went to Bill Reynolds, his chief technology expert, and instructed him to "clean up" the laptop.

Coe told Reynolds the records were not public records they were required to give to the press, although that claim is debatable. Either way, deleting them was a violation of a state law that requires public officials to keep copies of requested records for 30 days whether or not they are deemed public.

Reynolds would later tell FDLE investigators that he was uneasy about Coe's instructions, but didn't ask questions, assuming Coe would not tell him to break the law. A day later, Andrews called Coe's office about his public records request. Coe's secretary told Andrews they had not received it. Andrews faxed it again.

On May 5, Reynolds gave reporters an erroneous laptop Web site history that showed Coe had visited two Web sites, neither related to gambling.

Three days later, Coe approached Reynolds and told him to put the laptop in the office computer pool, which meant other employees might use it. Reynolds told investigators the purpose was obvious: If others used the laptop, it would be unclear who had visited gambling sites.

Reynolds told investigators he had refused, and Coe agreed to keep the laptop in the computer room to preserve its integrity.

Desperate for cash

Revelations about the computer could have been disastrous for Coe, who faced two challengers in his bid for a third term. Coe was deeply in debt and needed to win a third term to keep his $103,575 annual salary.

For two years, Coe had been asking his friends for personal loans. But it was never enough, and he began breaking laws to cover up his losses.

In July 1999, he lied on a loan application from Southern Exchange Bank, saying he needed $5,000 for taxes. Only $200 went to the IRS, the FDLE said. In September 1999, according to the FDLE report, he paid $2,820 to criminal defense attorney Norman Cannella for handling a private debt collection case against Coe.

His yearlong relationship with a girlfriend, Caroline Gallagher James, ended when he could not repay a $10,000 loan. She told investigators she resented his request for money and his inability to pay her back.

One of Coe's $200 checks to James bounced.

When Coe asked prosecutor Paul Johnson for a personal loan in February 2000, Coe mentioned that his office prosecuted people for writing bad checks, the report said. Johnson lent him $5,000.

At the same time, Coe was deceiving employees who filled out his election reports with the Florida Division of Elections. He allowed Paul Nee, a computer specialist, to file false reports that concealed his use of campaign donations for gambling.

Between July 1999 and May 2000, Coe siphoned about $9,000 from his re-election campaign fund for gambling, a violation of state law.

In early 2000, Coe's human resource director, Deanna Easterling, was no longer speaking to him.

They had split when Coe, a Democrat, discouraged Easterling's daughter from running for the County Commission against an incumbent Democrat.

Easterling lent Coe $5,000 before their falling out, and Coe's close aides agreed the loan had become a political liability. To pay it back, Coe borrowed more money.

With reporters asking about loans from Easterling and chief investigator Bill Stevens, Coe amended his financial disclosure forms to include the two loans, as required by law. In April, Coe, Johnson and Coe's chief counsel, Michael Hayes, discussed what to do.

During that conversation, Johnson told Coe he was forgiving his $5,000 loan, and Coe said that made it a gift that didn't have to be reported, the FDLE report said. Coe died before he had to report the loan, which should have been disclosed under Florida law even if Coe considered it a gift.

End to laptop mystery

On July 4, the loans came crashing down on Coe. As Reynolds flew back to Florida from a family funeral in Massachusetts, he got an urgent call on his cell phone from Johnson.

Coe had recently been interviewed by Andrews for a story on the loans.

On Friday, July 7, Reynolds talked to Johnson and Hayes about a computer user name that Andrews had asked about during the interview with Coe.

Around noon, Reynolds inspected a computer used by Coe's secretary.

In the deleted folder, he found three e-mail messages related to a greyhound racing site.

On Saturday, he called the administrator of the greyhound Web site, who confirmed that an account existed in Coe's name. Reynolds told Coe, Johnson and Hayes about the information.

Reynolds said he did not tell Johnson and Hayes about the Web sites he had earlier deleted on Coe's laptop.

Reynolds told FDLE agents Coe asked him to investigate "who could have done this to me," the report said. It was unclear from the reports exactly what Coe wanted him to do.

Tuesday evening, Coe spoke to Bhasin, his friend who had introduced him to the gambling Web site in January 1999.

He seemed disheartened, she told investigators. Coe said the governor was going to open an investigation into some e-mail messages that she had sent him. He killed himself the next day.

On Aug. 16, more than a month after Coe's suicide, FDLE agents interviewed Reynolds about deleting computer files from Coe's laptop computer.

After all that had happened, Reynolds intentionally misled them, the agents said.

Reynolds, who is now working for a business in Orlando, apparently thought he had erased any record of Coe's gambling Web site visits.

But FDLE computer experts found a computer trail of the gambling Web sites.

On Sept. 5, FDLE agents interviewed Reynolds a second time. Finally, he told them the truth, agents said. Reynolds told them he had misled the agents to prevent more embarrassment to the State Attorney's Office. He had been acting, he said, out of loyalty to his deceased boss.

- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

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