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Incoming state attorney cleans house

State Attorney-elect Mark Ober, who takes over as top prosecutor Jan. 2, said he's "going in a new direction.''

By SUE CARLTON and DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 2000


TAMPA -- Two top aides to Harry Lee Coe, the state attorney who killed himself in the face of a probe that would ultimately reveal his serious gambling habit, will no longer work at the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office come January.

State Attorney-elect Mark Ober, who takes over as top prosecutor Jan. 2, said he will not retain prosecutor Paul Duval Johnson nor general counsel Michael Hayes. Both were part of Coe's inner circle even as the secretive state attorney was cashing more than $500,000 in checks at local dog tracks in the last 15 months of his life.

Johnson was one of the trusted employees who loaned Coe $5,000 as Coe's debts mounted. Both Hayes and Johnson were at Coe's side days before his death, when he gave a disastrous interview to WFLA-Ch. 8 reporter Steve Andrews, who confronted Coe about taking loans from employees and using an office computer to access gambling Web sites.

"I'm going in a new direction," Ober said of his decision Monday.

Asked if the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation after Coe's suicide figured into his decision not to retain Hayes and Johnson, Ober said he considered "a variety of information."

"Certainly there were some aspects of the FDLE reports that I thought were troublesome," Ober said.

Both Johnson, who was paid a yearly salary of $100,200, and Hayes, who made $104,700, had indicated they wanted to keep their jobs, Ober said. He said he has no immediate plans to fill those positions.

Johnson declined to comment Monday. Hayes could not be reached.

Though the bulk of the office's 109 lawyers will keep their jobs, Ober also decided not to retain Craig Clendinen and Anthony Arena, former civil lawyers who joined Coe's office as white collar crime prosecutors.

Ober gave philosophical reasons that included office morale. Young lawyers who put in years as prosecutors should have the chance to work up to plum positions, he said.

Arena said the news came as "somewhat of a shock."

"I kind of feel that my heart got ripped out today," he said.

Ober said the decisions were difficult.

"I didn't sleep well last night because I know the dramatic effect it has on the lives of these individuals," he said.

One casualty of the Coe administration will be returning. Karen Stanley, a former sex offenses prosecutor who resigned from the troubled office when she was Coe's second-in-command, will return as Ober's felony bureau chief.

No decision has been made regarding Ober's chief assistant state attorney.

- Sue Carlton can be reached at (813)226-3346 or carlton@sptimes. David Karp can be reached at (813)226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com.

State Attorney's Office shakeup

These top Hillsborough State Attorney's Office officials are among those State Attorney-elect Mark Ober says he will not retain:

Name -- Title -- Salary

Anthony Arena -- chief domestic violence and arson -- $91,899

Craig Clendenin -- chief special prosecution -- $91,899

Michael Hayes -- general counsel -- $104,700

Paul Duval Johnson -- senior litigation specialist -- $100,200

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