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In the Clear?

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  • | 6:00 p.m. March 5, 2004
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In the Clear?

Ex-Hillsborough County Attorney Emeline C. Acton avoids criminal prosecution. But her husband says the ailing lawyer has other things to worry about.

By Francis X. Gilpin

Associate Editor

Former Hillsborough County Attorney Emeline C. Acton used to say she ran the biggest law office in Tampa. If Acton headed a private firm, however, it's hard to imagine many clients and partners putting up with her brand of leadership.

Four-day work weeks. One set of rules for the politically connected boss, another for the 80-odd other attorneys and staffers in her office. Her nominal supervisor and subordinates alike too afraid of her clout in local legal and political circles to protest.

The report on a six-month investigation of Acton conducted last year by Florida Department of Law Enforcement offers an unflattering portrait of the one-time Hillsborough County Bar Association president. After reviewing that record, Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober says a jury never would have convicted Acton of grand theft, official misconduct and destroying public records, despite the FDLE finding evidence to support charges.

By the time Ober told Hillsborough officials of his decision Feb. 24, Acton had been retired three months from her $165,526-a-year county job. She is trying to bring under control the severe diabetes that her supporters say is the primary reason for her sporadic appearances on the 27th floor of the Frederick B. Karl County Center in recent years.

Acton's husband, Michael Maher, says she has been unable to spend much time with the FDLE report. But Maher says Acton was pleased that Ober found no basis upon which to prosecute her.

Ober didn't let Acton all the way off the hook. The first-term state attorney has forwarded the FDLE report to the Florida Commission on Ethics.

"Emmy is not doing well," says Maher, who indicated she is awaiting an organ transplant that may be needed to save her life.

But, if the 48-year-old attorney ever recovers enough to work again, the FDLE report could present a sizeable obstacle to The Florida Bar letting Acton resume her legal career.

Unhappy underlings

Sheila Bess, a legal secretary at the county attorney's office for almost 11 years, estimated that Acton only worked about 30 hours a week. As an administrative assistant, Bess says she was forced to be creative when filling out Acton's time sheet. Bess says she frequently tracked down the boss at home during the workday.

"I would have to call many times, because Emmy didn't answer the phone because she was sleeping," Bess told an FDLE agent.

Bess left the county attorney's office in 1997. Deborah D. Martin, who eventually replaced Bess, and others say Acton eventually started playing hooky on Fridays and putting in a four-day week. Martin says Acton was never in the office more than 25 hours a week.

Frances H. "Beth" Novak, the legal office administrator, says Acton lost interest in the county attorney's job in early 2001. James J. Porter, a top deputy attorney and close friend of Acton, assumed control of the office and encouraged Acton to stay away from work to preserve her health, according to Novak.

Some of the employees who finally came forward to complain about Acton were once admirers of the county attorney, who prided herself on being the first woman to serve permanently in the post.

Martin's working relationship began to sour in November 2002 when Acton blamed her for another support staffer asking at an employee meeting if the annual office party could be held somewhere other than at Acton's Davis Islands home. After that, Martin says Acton stopped speaking to her.

A month later, Martin says she was galled when Acton warned her and an assistant county attorney that "they were out a lot."

While Bess worked for the county attorney in the 1980s and 1990s, she told the FDLE, Acton's diabetic condition caused more moodiness than physical ailments. Subsequently, Acton would sometimes have to be admitted to Tampa General Hospital, including a three-day stay in the spring of 2002.

Martin says Acton did not say anything about using sick leave during that office absence. Martin and others say Acton was quite emphatic, though, that they keep her hospitalization a secret, especially from Hillsborough commissioners.

A year later, Acton took off a week to travel with her teenage sons to Boston, where the boys visited nearby Harvard University as prospective students. Acton took no annual leave at the time of the trip, says Martin. Only after local newspapers began reporting on her troubles did Acton deduct four days from her vacation account, according to Martin.

Following the publicity, Acton and her aides adjusted payroll records to reflect that the county attorney had taken 29 more days of sick and vacation leave in 2002 and 2003 than she had previously owned up to.

In addition, an FDLE review of parking garage data, calendars and other county records determined that Acton failed to submit leave requests for another 68 days between January 2001 and April 2003. The records indicated to the FDLE that Acton didn't work those days but collected regular pay anyway. The 68 days represent about $45,000 in pay that the FDLE says Acton received for no work.

Maher, a forensic psychiatrist, says the state investigation was flawed. For example, one of the business days that the FDLE accused Acton of not working fell on a Saturday, Maher says. He also says the FDLE should have considered cellular telephone records while trying to figure out which days Acton worked.

Assistant County Attorney Jim Porter says Acton could always be reached by telephone or voice mail if she wasn't in the office. "Her presence is felt in the office," Porter told the FDLE, "whether she's there or not."

Complete autonomy

Where were the public officials who worked for, worked with, or supervised the work of Acton during her disappearing acts?

After extensive interviews with office staff, the FDLE concluded that employees such as Martin didn't initially question Acton's absences because they were afraid for their jobs. Bess pursued a nursing career after a falling out with Acton, according to the report, "because she knew that Acton would make it difficult for her to get another position in the legal field in Tampa."

Higher up the chain of command, assistant county attorneys were "terrified" of their boss because "Acton has so much influence in the legal community in Tampa," Bess told the FDLE.

"You would never question Emmy," Assistant County Attorney Patricia Phillips told the FDLE. Yet Phillips was one of the few attorneys in Acton's office who criticized her in FDLE interviews.

Phillips says she was uncomfortable with the hundreds of hours that county attorneys and support staff devoted to a University of South Florida government class that Acton had agreed to teach with lawyer Mark A. Brown of Carlton Fields PA.

While Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, then county elections supervisor, and other dignitaries guest-lectured from time to time, county attorneys taught most of Acton's sessions of the class. Phillips coordinated the scheduling. She also found herself issuing final grades to USF students, a task that wasn't in her job description as Acton's legal aide and for which she received no extra compensation.

Acton donated the $1,800 she received from USF for her involvement with the government course toward a scholarship for students in the class. In a letter last September, Acton informed Commissioner Jan Platt that the class entitled her to 15 hours of continuing legal education credits toward maintaining her law license at no cost to the county.

Former County Administrator Daniel A. Kleman was supposed to supervise Acton, but it was generally known that the county attorney detested him and worked around him.

Kleman, who was pressured by county commissioners to resign last fall after almost a decade in his job, told FDLE agents in May that he was aware of Acton's casual work hours. He says Acton probably had maintained a light work schedule for years before it became public.

But Kleman provided no reason for why neither he nor anybody else had disciplined Acton. Ober cited the lax oversight as one rationale for his refusal to file criminal charges against Acton.

Maher says Kleman and the county commissioners never expressed disapproval of his wife's job performance.

"What you have here is a dedicated public servant who made a few minor mistakes while working her fingers to the bone, at risk to her own health," says Maher. "Where's the unethical behavior?"

Susan V. Bloemendaal, chief disciplinary counsel for The Florida Bar in Tampa, told GCBR March 1 that her office has not opened a file on Acton.

The FDLE interview with Kleman's replacement, Patricia G. Bean, sheds the most light on how, as Bess put it, Acton was able to enjoy complete autonomy inside Hillsborough government for so long.

Bean told FDLE agent Lana S. Tester that Acton usually came out on top with the county commission whenever Acton and Kleman clashed. The long-time Kleman deputy and successor says Acton had "the board in her back pocket."

Acton was a protege of Fred Karl and learned how to navigate Tampa politics from a master. Acton replaced Karl as county attorney in 1990 and cultivated close friendships with commissioners past and present, including Iorio, Phyllis Busansky, Pat Frank and Jim Norman.

One commissioner Acton wasn't able to woo quite as successfully was Ronda Storms, who received the initial complaints about the county attorney a year ago.

A lawyer herself, Storms told FDLE agents that competent staff kept the county attorney's office functioning while Acton and her closest aides did things like go off on law-school recruiting trips to Atlanta, New York and Washington, D.C. Nobody could remember a recent law graduate coming to work for Acton and staying, as a result of the trips. The one graduate who accepted work as an attorney, as opposed to a law clerk, lasted only a few months with the county.

The missing file

Memories were fuzzy all over the county attorney's office after Novak told the FDLE about a hunt for information on former Assistant County Administrator Edwin J. Hunzeker.

According to Novak, Commissioner Frank asked Acton to inspect the contents of Hunzeker's divorce court file in Plant City to determine whether he had been fraternizing with a controversial subordinate. While Frank denied requesting the public divorce file, the commissioner defended Acton perusing it. Frank says Acton was carrying out a legitimate inquiry for risk-management purposes.

Far from routine official business, Novak says she believes Acton sought the divorce file in hopes of using it to discredit Kleman's office. Acton aides kept the $86 cost of copying the file off the county's official expense register by using private employee funds.

Many of those Novak says had direct knowledge of the incident had trouble recalling details that might confirm her account to the FDLE. State agents couldn't find the copy of Hunzeker's divorce file that Acton acknowledged her office once possessed.

In an interview with the FDLE last July, Acton disputed some of Novak's recollection and was foggy on other points. She told the FDLE that the file contained nothing posing a liability for the county. So Acton says she might have tossed out the public records.


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