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Business Observer Thursday, Jul. 15, 2004 17 years ago

Calm After the Storms

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Ober says he's steadied the Hillsborough state attorney's office.

Calm After the Storms

Ober says he's steadied the Hillsborough state attorney's office.

By Francis X. Gilpin

Associate Editor

Compared to his three elected predecessors, Mark Ober is sitting pretty heading into the 2004 political season. For a state attorney in Hillsborough County, Ober has had to endure little controversy during his first term in office.

No investigators are checking his betting habits. Power brokers aren't scheming to unseat him for poking around a bank where they did business alongside underworld figures. And nobody is parading his top assistants in front of federal grand jurors.

"I promised the public that I would restore the integrity to the state attorney's office - the trust, the public confidence - and I have done that," says Ober. "You have read nothing but favorable comments about the state attorney's office since I have been elected."

Well, not exactly.

Robin Fernandez Fuson is challenging Ober in the Aug. 31 Republican primary. A former assistant Hillsborough prosecutor, Fuson says his old boss has been too eager to please, cutting deals for defendants who have the foresight to hire defense lawyers on good terms with Ober.

"He's blowing hot air," Ober says of Fuson. "I've learned to say no. 'Let me reflect on it, no.' 'Hell, no.' 'Absolutely, no.' 'I can call you back Monday, no.' If I didn't do that, I'm not doing my job."

The challenger left the state attorney's office near the end of 2001 after Ober says Fuson was demoted for pleading out drug dealers to probation instead of recommending prison.

Ober says he has made the tough calls. "I cannot do things for the applause of the crowd," he says. "I have to do it based on the law and the facts of the case."

Take the anti-Bush protesters at Legends Field, says Ober. Tampa police removed the protesters from the New York Yankees spring baseball park three years ago when Republican activists complained about their presence at a rally for President George W. Bush.

Ober declined to prosecute, to the disappointment of fellow members of the Grand Old Party. "There were some very significant First Amendment issues there," Ober says. "Our obligation is to make certain we do the right thing."

The Hillsborough state attorney also decided last year there wasn't enough evidence to retry Rudolph Holton for the 1986 murder of a Tampa teen-ager. Newly analyzed DNA evidence cast doubt on Holton's conviction.

Falling back on the testimony of jailhouse snitches who implicated Holton was out of the question. As a result of Ober's action, Holton was set free.

"I could not vouch for the credibility of these witnesses, which I am obligated to do," says Ober. "With the stroke of a pen, Rudolph Holton was released from the Florida State Prison, Death Row. I did the right thing."

The Ober campaign headquarters is practically in the shadow of the old Morgan Street Jail on the northern edge of downtown Tampa. During a morning interview at the former hair salon, Ober is eager to reminisce, even though he was up late the previous night signing off on a wiretap.

At a small desk, Ober spread out yellowing newspaper clips recounting some 40 homicide cases he has tried during 27 years of legal practice, both for the state and for the defense. He speaks with reverence of the office he holds and, in particular, of two prior occupants, Paul Antinori and E.J. Salcines.

Like Fuson, Ober says he wanted to be a prosecutor since grade school. Ober says he was inspired by Antinori's tenure as Hillsborough state attorney in the 1960s. "Paul was a Hollywood figure at the time," says Ober. "He was well-spoken. He was dynamic."

Ober is one of the dozens of Tampa graduates of the South Texas College of Law, the alma mater of now-state appellate judge Salcines known locally as "EJU."

"Salcines had such an impact on our lives," says Ober. "I have been so fortunate in my career. I'll tell you, I get emotional because he taught me, as a prosecutor and as a human being, lessons in life that you should remember every day."

Ober was punching the clock at a local slaughterhouse after college to earn money for law school when he called Salcines for advice on whether to go to EJU. Salcines told Ober to come down to his office and talk with a recent grad he'd just hired by the name of Dennis Alvarez.

After graduating from the Houston law school himself, Ober followed the future judge Alvarez into a job as a prosecutor for Salcines. He started in 1976 at $14,000 a year. "I was the richest man in the world," he says.

Ober rose to homicide division chief and was one of the few who wasn't called to testify in the grand jury probes of Salcines by the late U.S. Attorney Robert W. "Mad Dog" Merkle Jr. and other federal prosecutors during the 1970s and 1980s.

One of those federal prosecutors, Bill James, ousted Salcines in 1984. Salcines was never charged with a crime, but he was finished with voters after asserting his Fifth Amendment privilege before a grand jury. Harry Lee Coe III knocked off James eight years later.

Coe's narrow victory was attributed to an aborted James probe of organized crime influence at Key Bank in Tampa. Coe committed suicide in 2000, as state investigators were opening an inquiry into his gambling debts.

The most recent wave of Tampa courthouse scandals, which forced Alvarez off the bench, is not something that preoccupies Ober's time.

"I look at the state attorney's office, not as E.J. Salcines or Bill James or Harry Coe or Mark Ober. I look at it as an institution," says the incumbent. "I'm concerned about Mark Ober. I'm concerned about the state attorney's office. I learned a long time ago not to be concerned about things I have no control over."

These days, Ober enjoys much better relations with the feds than Salcines did. Ober says he talks almost daily with Robert O'Neill, chief criminal prosecutor for U.S. Attorney Paul I. Perez.

"I'm confident in what I do," says the 6-foot-5, 265-pound state attorney, who used to play semi-professional football. "But I'm really, for a big guy, I don't have a big ego."

He does have a big fundraising advantage over Fuson. At the end of March, Ober had collected nearly $200,000 in cash to Fuson's approximately $26,500. The second-quarter campaign finance reports for 2004 were due to be filed July 10, but hadn't been posted online by the Florida secretary of state as of July 13.

The Ober campaign is expected to use that cash edge to defend against Fuson's rhetorical attacks. "I wasn't mad at anybody when I ran for state attorney and I didn't need a job," says Ober, who is paid $143,363 a year. "I felt I could make a difference."

Fuson says lawyers are fleeing Ober's office at a rate comparable to the darkest final months of the Coe regime. More than 80 attorneys have left since the 2000 election, according to records from Ober's office that Fuson obtained last month under the state public records law.

"There's no other county with turnover like that," says Fuson. "He hasn't changed a thing. The bleeding has not stopped."

But Ober has compiled a lengthy list of his own, with the names of prosecutors from his 110-attorney staff who have worked in the office at least three years.

"The predecessor state attorney was hiring people, in my opinion, based on political prowess, with no skills, with no trial experience," says Ober. "And he started them at $70,000 or $80,000 a year and they hadn't tried a case a day in their life. It was bad for morale."

Sure, says Ober, there is turnover. But he says it's less than 12% a year, well below the 20% average for assistant state attorneys in Florida.

Ober says it's not that attorneys don't want to work for him - they just cannot afford to. Starting salaries of $36,900 don't grab many recent law school graduates carrying $70,000 to $100,000 in student-loan debt.

That is why Ober insists on promoting from within, rewarding the green hires who stick it out in county court. Once they rise to circuit court, Ober assistants appear to do all right. Acquittals in Hillsborough felony jury trials have declined from 32% in 2001 to 29% last year.

MARK ALAN OBER

Current position: State attorney, 13th Judicial Circuit for Hillsborough County, seeking re-election

Born: May 18, 1951, in Ames, Iowa; moved to Florida in 1961 and to Hillsborough County in 1965

Higher education: Bachelor of arts degree in English from the University of Florida, Gainesville; juris doctor degree from South Texas College of Law, Houston

Family: Divorced, with two children and one grandchild

Dispositions at felony jury trials

Hillsborough Pasco-Pinellas DeSoto-Manatee-Sarasota

Fiscal year200120022003200120022003200120022003

Acquittals31.7%29.7%29.0%29.7%29.9%29.6%34.3%21.7%11.8%

Plea bargains11.1%9.1%7.7%3.6%4.5%4.0%1.0%12.0%4.3%

Convictions57.1%61.2%63.3%66.7%65.6%66.3%64.8%66.3%83.9%

Source: GCBR analysis of circuit court clerk records

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