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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 9, 2004 18 years ago

Batter Up

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A retired pro baseball pitcher-turned-lawyer challenges Hillsborough County's stateattorney with a few curveballs.

Batter Up

A retired pro baseball pitcher-turned-lawyer challenges Hillsborough County's state

attorney with a few curveballs.

By Francis X. Gilpin

Associate Editor

Robin Fernandez Fuson played professional baseball for 13 seasons. But that wouldn't help a local prep star in trouble with the law, if Fuson was Hillsborough County's top prosecutor.

Fuson says he has plotted to become state attorney for more than a decade. Ever since he left the diamond for good and entered Stetson University law school in 1990. This is the year, he says.

Fuson says he is making his run now because fellow Republican Mark Ober, the first-term incumbent, has mishandled politically charged cases, such as the alleged battery of a 14-year-old girl by Tampa's Plant High School baseball standout Corey Brown and three others.

The families of the teenage suspects retained four prominent Tampa defense attorneys and they are getting probation, rather than prison time, for their pleas to felony charges.

"Check the donor list and see how much money those people have kicked in," suggests Fuson. All four of the attorneys - Ronald K. Cacciatore, Norman S. Cannella, Ralph E. Fernandez and Ronald P. Hanes - happen to have contributed $500 each to Ober's re-election effort.

"Ask yourselves, what if four black kids had raped that 14-year-old girl in the parking lot and were represented by the public defender?" asks Fuson. "Would the outcome have been the same?"

Ober wasn't pleased with Fuson's implication. "It's insulting that someone would think for $2,000 that I would jeopardize my integrity," says Ober.

There's an unusual edge to the Fuson campaign rhetoric that politics, race and socioeconomic status often determine how justice is dispensed at the Tampa courthouse. Thorny issues such as race and class normally stay in the background, if they surface at all, during Hillsborough election contests.

"It's very hard sometimes to prevent justice from being doled out unevenly because the squeaky wheel does get the grease," says Fuson, who worked eight years in the Hillsborough prosecutor's office. "If you can pay somebody a lot of money to create a lot of squeaking, you'll get a lot of grease. That's why you have to be extra careful that the 17-year-old black kid from College Hill doesn't get treated any different than the 17-year-old athlete star from South Tampa high schools."

Ober might find Fuson's criticism a bit ironic. Before Fuson quit the state attorney's office in 2001, Ober told GCBR last summer, he had to demote the prosecutor twice for unauthorized leniency in bargaining pleas. Ober claims Fuson accepted probation as punishment for drug traffickers facing a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison.

Fuson dismisses the possibility that he is out for vengeance. He says he planned to run for state attorney long before he fell from Ober's favor.

"My sole motivation for going to law school was to run for this office," says the retired pitcher, who bounced around the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners organizations before hanging up his spikes. "This is the only other thing I've ever wanted to do."

Fuson works from a small, windowless room in West Tampa rental space that he shares with another lawyer. Despite a campaign promise that he would be "a prosecutor, not a politician," Fuson is savvy enough to include "Fernandez" in his full name stenciled on the front door of the strip-center office in the Latin neighborhood.

After obtaining a criminal justice degree from the University of South Florida, Fuson went straight to Stetson. He interned with then-Circuit Judge Harry Lee Coe III during his last semester at USF. By the time Fuson graduated from law school in 1993, Coe was state attorney and he hired Fuson.

Fuson says he tried at least 100 cases before juries. He rose as high as chief of the narcotics division, supervising nine other assistant state attorneys, before his career descended under Ober.

Ober has too many pals, especially among the local criminal defense bar from his days on that side of the courtroom, to be a fair prosecutor, according to Fuson.

Cannella, for one, says Fuson "ought to reassess his rationale for that statement."

Cacciatore was blunter. Disparaging Fuson as "a complete horse's ass," the veteran criminal defense lawyer told GCBR: "I guess that's what losers do to get publicity for themselves."

But Fuson is trying to make Ober's friendship with Tampa plaintiff's attorney C. Steven Yerrid a campaign issue, too.

Yerrid's teenage son was at the wheel of a Cadillac Escalade speeding down Bayshore Boulevard last summer when it plowed into a Nissan Altima, killing a Lutz nurse trying to make an improper turn toward Davis Islands. Charles Gable Yerrid was issued a traffic summons. The defendant, whose father was part of a legal team that won a $13 billion settlement from the tobacco industry in 1997, will pay nothing more than a fine for the fatal crash.

Citing the Yerrid friendship, Ober withdrew from the case. But that was almost a month after the accident. Gov. Jeb Bush reassigned the case to Bernie McCabe, state attorney for Pasco and Pinellas counties. By the time McCabe got the case, a blood sample taken from young Yerrid had been routinely destroyed at Tampa General Hospital, where the teen was treated for a broken leg.

Ober says there was nothing he could do about the blood evidence because Tampa police didn't hand him the case right away. The police, who were unaware that TGH keeps ordinary blood samples for just a week, didn't suspect the Yerrid teen was under the influence of alcohol or other drugs at the crash scene.

McCabe says he was displeased to learn the blood sample had been discarded. But a frozen urine specimen was preserved. McCabe says it indicated prior marijuana use but insufficient to impair driving.

"I don't think you can say that his office sat on it for a month, or three weeks, or whatever it was, because it was a Tampa PD case until they came to him," McCabe says of Ober. "If the police had closed that case without charges, he would have had no conflict."

Ober took stronger exception to Fuson's assertion. "It doesn't matter who your momma is or who your daddy is or how much money you have, or who your lawyer is," says Ober. "If we have a case, we're going to come after you."

In a prepared statement to GCBR, Yerrid says: "As a father, I find it very unfortunate that my son's automobile accident would be utilized to attack the state attorney's office."

Yet Fuson says the Plant High and Yerrid cases have shaken the public's confidence in Ober.

In fact, Fuson says he would take the late Harry Coe over Ober as a state attorney. Coe's erratic behavior, including an infamous underwear incident, may have foreshadowed his 2000 suicide as investigators opened a probe into his gambling habit.

"I would rather have somebody have a car stolen loaded with his underwear than intentionally sitting on a case for four weeks, so that a friend's son catches a break," says Fuson.

Immediately qualifying his comment, Fuson says he isn't sure why Ober took as long as he did to pass the Yerrid case to McCabe. "Was it intentional?" Fuson asks. "Was it negligent?"

Fuson's campaign has picked up two supporters who have grievances with Ober.

Dale B. "Chip" DeBlock, a Tampa police detective, sued Ober last year for defamation after the state attorney publicly questioned the truthfulness of the former vice investigator. DeBlock had accused an assistant state attorney of tipping off lingerie shop owners he was investigating as fronts for prostitution.

DeBlock sued the city in 2001 when he was reassigned to a less prestigious job. City lawyers sought to depose Fuson. On a Web site DeBlock maintains for law enforcement personnel, he invites visitors to sign a cyber-petition calling on the local police union to endorse Fuson for state attorney.

The other Fuson backer with a history with Ober is Shirley Williams. Once a highly regarded prosecutor, Williams was let go in 2002 after Ober accused her of lying about who filed a charge in a homicide case that hadn't been authorized. Williams handled cases, like the prosecution of cop-killer conspirator Bernice Bowen and the matricidal Valessa Robinson.

In that dispute, Fuson sides with Williams. "I'm of the belief that it was always his intention to get rid of her because so many of his friends on the defense bar complained about her hard-nosed attitude," says Fuson.

Fuson says Williams, like himself, was a victim of Ober's system of letting defense lawyers, who donate to the state attorney's re-election, dictate the terms of reduced charges and plea deals. When those decisions are removed from career prosecutors and kicked up to Ober appointees, Fuson says: "Now, it's in the political world."

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