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    Close aide knew extent of Coe's debt, troubles

    The Hillsborough state attorney's turbulent friendship mixed work, politics and money.

    By DAVID KARP, GRAHAM BRINK and SUE CARLTON

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 5, 2000


    TAMPA -- When Deanna Easterling heard the news, she raced through the state attorney's fifth-floor office asking everyone: Had they seen Harry Lee Coe? Did they know where he might be?

    "Don't lie to me," she reportedly told Chief Assistant State Attorney Wayne Chalu. "Is Harry Coe dead?"

    When she learned Coe had killed himself, Easterling broke down. "It got out of control. It got out of control," she said, sobbing. "Why couldn't he have just resigned?"

    The scene is described in a Florida Department of Law Enforcement report on Coe's death released Monday. The 632-page report offers a glimpse into the intense relationship between Coe and Easterling, his human resources director and longtime friend, and addresses an office rumor that Easterling knew enough to get Coe indicted.

    In the report, Easterling acknowledged that she knew about Coe's gambling and that he had falsified financial disclosure reports about loans from employees, including $5,000 he borrowed from her.

    Before his suicide, Coe had accumulated a six-figure gambling debt, written scores of bad checks, and had taken office and campaign funds for private use.

    The report clears Easterling of any rumored extortion or blackmail, but it makes it clear that pressure on Coe intensified as his relationship with Easterling broke down.

    Their long friendship ended when Coe would not support the bid of Easterling's daughterfor a County Commission seat against a Democrat. It seemed like a betrayal to Easterling, who had worked on Coe's campaign.

    She had helped him by asking her neighbor, Republican Sam Rashid, to support him. Rashid said he helped raise $10,000 for Coe and included Coe in meetings with top Republicans such as Gov. Jeb Bush, and leaders of the state Legislature that took place at Rashid's house.

    When Coe did not back Stacey Easterling, Rashid, one of her ardent supporters, called a meeting with Coe in February 2000 at the office of the Flyer, a shopper published by Republican Dick Mandt. Rashid called it a "neutral" site.

    The exchange became so heated that Mandt had to call for a break, the report says. In the session, which included Sun City Republican leader Dee Williams, Rashid told Coe the Republicans were only backing him because Deanna Easterling wanted it.

    Rashid told agents that he did not threaten Coe at the meeting, which Rashid called cordial.

    That's not how Coe described it to friends. Former Assistant State Attorney Leland Baldwin said Coe had described the meeting as "threatening," the report said.

    Soon after, Coe's political problems mounted. WFLA-Ch. 8 reporter Steve Andrews began looking into Coe's gambling, and in April, requested records that might show Coe used his office computer to visit greyhound racing sites.

    This year, Coe began telling friends that Easterling was "blackmailing" him, which Easterling denied.

    Easterling asked Coe to repay the $5,000 loan. Coe had to borrow from another employee to cover the debt. When Easterling finally got a check from Coe, she clasped Coe aide Dudley Dickson's hand and pleaded with him to tell Coe how thankful she was.

    Twice, Easterling thought Coe might try to kill himself. She made appointments for Coe to see a psychologist, but Coe canceled them.

    Coe had told others in the office that he couldn't fire Easterling, according to the report. Coe said she "had too much on him."

    Even so, Coe tried to fire Easterling twice before he died. On the day he killed himself, Coe signed a letter terminating Easterling.

    - Times staff writer Christopher Goffard contributed to this report.

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