Rock-It with Tampa’s Bobby Friss Band! TAMPA BAY LIFE

Bobby Friss, Fate, By Bob Andelman
“Fate” by Bobby Friss. Order your copy today by clicking on the album cover above!

Profile By Bob Andelman

(Originally published in Tampa Bay Life, 1990)

“This is like the guy next door that you grew up with,” says Russ Albums. “If you wanted to have a best friend, this would be the guy. He’s a prince.”
It’s one of those nights.

Saturday night at Tampa’s Rock-It Club and a few hundred people are crowded together, ready to party. Pretty young women in skin-tight half shirts, mini-skirts and teased hair. Rugged young men in tight jeans, leather boots and air guitars strapped over their shoulders.

One man has brought them all together.

Unfortunately, he’s got about a million other places he’d rather be right now.

It’s not the club, the audience, the pay or anything else but him. Bobby Friss plays rock ‘n’ roll 300 nights a year — tonight he wishes it was only 299 nights.

But standing outside in the cool air after his first low-key set, Friss is mentally preparing to give his best when he goes back in, whether his heart is in it or not. That’s just the kind of guy he is.

“It’s one of those nights,” he says with a shrug, that silly grin coming up from under several pounds of blond hair. “You play the same thing so many times. I have played 300 nights a year for 15 years. So playing a Saturday night in Tampa is not an ‘I can’t wait to do it.’ ‘Cause I do it every night.

“My days for 15 years have been, get up, take care of business, take a shower and come to work and play music. Just ’cause people get revved up and say, ‘I’m going to see Bobby Friss!’ — it’s just another rock ‘n’ roll night to me.”

The grin becomes a frown. Friss — by all accounts the most professional, workman-like musician in the state of Florida — knows what he’s said is the truth but it’s also a mood. It will pass — in fact it already has. “I’m going to have to turn myself up a gear,” he says to no one in particular. “A night like tonight, to be honest, I need a kick in the ass. I came in here tonight apathetic.”

Trouble is, an average night in Tampa before his hometown fans pales after the experiences of the last few weeks. Overfl ow Spring Break crowds in Daytona Beach and Panama City. Opening gigs for Otis Day & the Nights and comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Over 40,000 people in Pensacola. “Then I come to the Rock-It Club on a Saturday night and it’s a little anti-climactic,” he says. ” People don’t understand. They work days at a computer, they slow down, take a break. I can’t do that. I’m on stage. I control the crowd. If I’m crazy, they’re crazy. If I do nothing, they sit there like flounder. I want them to have fun.”The Act

The Bobby Friss Band, By Bob Andelman
The Bobby Friss Band

“You have to do more. Nobody is blown away by virtuousity. They work all day, they want to be entertained at night. They don’t want to see guys getting off playing guitar.”

“You have to literally reach out and strangle the audience. There’s just too many distractions. I’d love to be Bruce Springsteen, singing just my songs. But you’re the sideline at the club, you’re not the main act. That’s why I’ve become the guy who jumps on the table, slugs down a beer. Whatever it takes. I can’t stand having a room full of p eople milling around, not watching what I’m doing. The only thing worse than playing to an empty house is playing to a packed house that’s not watching. Whatever it takes, I’ll do.

“Once, a guy at a club had inversion boots. I hung from scaffolding 30 feet above the stage playing my guitar. I’ve gone across streets and stopped cars and played on their roofs while the band is playing indoors. I invited the whole audience on stage one night at the 49th Street Mining Co.

“I randomly select somebody every night and slide a Miller Genuine Draft down my guitar neck into their waiting hand. I do it every night. It’s predictable, but everybody gets up to see it. It’s like Sammy Davis Jr. doing ‘Candyman.’

ART HAEDIKE, owner, Porthole Lounge, Tampa: “He’s played his guitar in the parking lot. Once, he was singing in the john with the microphone and you’d hear the toilet flush.”

RUSS ALBUMS, WYNF (95 FM) disc jockey: “”He’ll sit down and schmooze with the audience and let them play his guitar while he has a beer.”

RICK RICHEY, childhood friend: “I rember walking through the parking lot of Mr. T’s Club 19 in Clearwater and he was standing there with his cordless guitar, wailing away. I was trying to figure out what was going on.”

“It’s a ‘slap’ society. People want something to slap them in the face. You get overlooked if you’re subtle.”

“We play about four or five originals a set and I better do some damn good cover material in between because these people are too primed to hear it.

“It’s too bad. We should be able to just play our own music. But I think even Led Zeppelin — unknown — would have a problem doing three sets of original material.

“The bands in Tampa Bay playing one or two nights a week — I guarantee they’re doing day jobs and starving.

“I run a business. The band is on salary. As soon as I decide we’re only playing originals, only playing concert-type shows, I take away the tightness of the band. In order to sustain their lifestyles, the guys would have to get day jobs. That’s what breaks up bands. Some weeks you don’t work, you work one night. The music becomes a sidelight. Right now, this is what we do. No distractions. During the day, we write, we record. We work on furthering our careers.

“Stranger and myself gross the most money among bands in town. That’s not to say there aren’t a town of other bands that aren’t as good as we are or better. The thing is, we’re the ones playing cover songs on Tuesdays and Wednesday nights. These other bands don’t want to do it. That’s great, but they’re not going to have the big money, they’re going to have to get a second job.

ART HAEDIKE, Owner, Porthole Lounge, Tampa: “When they say Bobby Friss cleans up at the Porthole, they’re right: we have him sweep up and he washes my car.

“He’s a good, consistent act. One of the best, if not the best, rock ‘n’ roll entertainers in Tampa Bay. Bobby works the crowd. A quick wit, lots of extraneous stuff. He gets more money than most of the other bands that play here. Maybe they haven’t rubbe d elbows with the right people yet. But they’re probably the best club act working. The nights are a little better when he’s around.”The Studio

Returning to the studio early in 1990 to record his second album, Friss took a long hard look at his first effort and decided it wasn’t the best he could be. There were only a few songs — “Long Way Down” and “Can’t Come Back,” which has become a local radio staple — that he is fully satisfied with two years later. It is driving him to do be more critical this time around.

“I learned a lot,” he says. “There’s good parts, but I don’t think, overall, the songs hold up.”

There are two roadblocks for Friss on his new record. First, because of his budget limitations, he must once again produce the album himself. Despite the engineering expertise of Morrisound Chief Engineer Jim Morris, that can be a drawback in the experien ce department. “I know what sound I want,” says Friss. “But I don’t necessarily know how to get the sound.”

Another problem is time. Being on the road five days out of every six cuts into available recording hours. That’s why the first album was done over four months instead of four weeks. “I just go in and do it when I can,’ says the guitarist. “It’d be nice to go in and do a month straight but I can’t afford the time.” When he’s on the road, Friss reviews tapes, making notes and plans for alterations.

Friss will rarely sample a new song in a club before it’s been recordedIt’s His Band

Note the name of the group: The Bobby Friss Band.

When he first formed a quartet in 1983, one thing was established from the beginning: “It was going to be my band,” says Friss. “I make the decisions, the song selections.”

Friss likes to be in control. He follows and believes strongly in his own muse, to the point of writing and composing almost all of his band’s original material. “We haven’t collaborated that much because if we get a record deal, I’d like to get it with my material,” he admits. “Not so much for my ego, but I’d like to show I have that capability.”

“My career is directed. I know what I’m doing.

The Bobby Friss Band
The Bobby Friss Band, By Bob Andelman

Family Ties

Friss’s older brother Jay — a.k.a. “Ray Blade” — is the drummer in the Johnny G. Lyon Band.

His younger sister, Susie, is a schoolteacher.

His father Dick — “the oldest rock ‘n’ roller in the universe,” according to Friss — is the night auditor at the Paradise Lakes nudist resort in Land ‘o Lakes. He is also the older gentleman at every Friss Band show wearing a black satin “Bobby Friss Band” jacket.

“They say you must be proud,” says Papa Friss. “But if your kid is in sports or music, you go see them play. If you’ve got a kid who sells socks at Maas Brothers, you don’t go see him work. I’ve got a daughter who teaches school but I’ve never seen her teach. But why should I sit home and stare at a TV when Bob’s in town? I t’s entertaining.”

Dick and Bobby’s mom, Jackie — who lives in Rochester, N.Y. — were divorced in 1973.

Michele Wyatt, Friss’s new bride, met the musician in Michigan when he was managed by her brother Warren. Warren was reportedly not too happy with the arrangement at first. The Wyatts have a third sibling, Brett, who is quite close to Friss. Growing Up

Music wasn’t Bobby Friss’s first love. That would be sports — particularly basketball.

“Bobby’s an obsessive kind of guy,” says his dad, Dick Friss. “He was not a natural athlete, not gifted. But he forced himself. He shot baskets until after dark. He’d shoot and shoot and he made varsity at Largo High. He was never going to be a built-in basketball player, but he forced himself to get better by persistence. The same thing with the guitar. Nobody said, ‘We want you to take up the guitar.’ He went into room his with a Sears Roebuck guitar and just practiced.”

Dick says his youngest son was not the kind of boy to announce his intentions to the family — he’d just go out and do things. Like the day he took up pole-vaulting. “I said you’re a what? A pole-vaulter? He said running around a track eight times wasn’t a s much fun.” Or when the Largo Sentinel hired him to write about sports at his high school and the family found out about it by accident — seeing his byline in the newspaper. Friss was paid by the inch, so he wrote about everything from badminton to tiddylwinks, including describing his own play in basketball games — “Friss scored 10 points” — in the third person. “That’s just the way he’s always been,” says Dick, laughing.

“I was really into sports as a kid,” says Friss. “I didn’t pick up the guitar until I was 17. I missed the Beatles and Motown — I had to go back to them because I was out shooting baskets.”

Rick Richey has known Friss since they were in 7th grade together. He remembers when his pal would take his guitar out to Indian Rocks Beach every summer night and sit on the seawall, playing for the passing crowd. And Richey was road manager for the first Friss band, U.S. Steel, which played its one and only job at an apartment complex dance.

Not that Largo teen life was all dribble and strum.

“My senior year in high school I was not in the crowd I needed to be in,” says Friss. “”Let’s just say I was experienced with everything. It wasn’t a healthy environment. I was probably hanging out with people who are doing the same things now they were then.”

“By his own smarts, he rejected the things many people find it hard to reject,” says Dick.

After graduating from Largo, Friss packed a pillowcase full of clothes, grabbed his guitar and hitched rides north to Michigan. He moved in with family and eventually enrolled in journalism at Central Michigan University. If he didn’t apply his basketball intensity to studying, he at least invested his time well in practicing the guitar.

“I didn’t know anybody and the winter cold was ungodly,” says Friss. “I stayed inside and played and played. That was the year that secured my love for music — there wasn’t anything else to do.”

Higher education lasted less than two years, but Friss went on to a higher calling. He formed his first band, Force, and toured with it for six years from Michigan to Florida. He left the group in ’81 and spent six months seeking work as a songwriter in New York before relocating to Orlando. The Bobby Friss Band was formed there in 1983, although all the faces save Friss’s have changed through the years.

Bobby Friss, Cut Loose, By Bob Andelman
“Cut Loose” by Bobby Friss

As Real As It Gets

In 1981, the Rolling Stones were the first rock ‘n’ roll band to have corporate sponsor — Jovan. Since then, it’s hard to find any act on the road that isn’t shilling for some product or service. Paul McCartney does it for credit cards; Tina Turner does it for cars. So it wasn’t too surprising that when Miller Beer was looking to make a long-term promotional investment in its Genuine Draft brand years ago, it searched the country for young musicians with bright futures who needed a leg up. For 10 years now, the brewery has provided promotions and music equipment for bands such as the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Del Fuegos, the Rainmakers and, since 1987, the Bobby Friss Band.

“It’s a validation of his talents that Miller would pick him up,” says Bill Templeton, editor of Players magazine in St. Petersburg. “He’s paid his dues here, always ranked as one of the top bands in town. When people see him, they know they’re going to get the goods.”

“You play for eight or ten years without corporate sponsors and you know the daily grind of paying $4 for a guitar string,” says Friss. “Then they come in and say we’re going to give you strings, instruments, guitars, posters — all these things that otherwise come out of my pocket. They step in and become big brother. There’s no cash exchanged — just equipment and promotion.”

The promotional boost is probably the best part. Each year, all 26 bands in the Miller Network attend a seminar on upcoming promotions, expectations, and public relations. They are skillfully taught how to talk to disc jockeys, reporters, club owners and fans. Then the Miller machine guides them from city to city with local advertising, parties, in-club posters, glossy pictures suitable for autographs and plenty of media contact. Friss has also recorded nationally broadcast radio commercials in which he sings the brew’s jingle and is I.D.’ed as “Florida’s Bobby Friss Band” at the end.

Miller has been a dream come true for Friss’s agent, Omni Talent vice president Rick Young. “He’s very easy to book,” according to Young. “He’s popular in nearly every city in Florida. Miller’s been very helpful with that.

“I go to Louisville, Kentucky to do a one-nighter and the PR people at Miller have already set up interviews with two radio stations,” marvels Friss. “They usually play a song or two off our record. Here I am, unsigned to a record company, getting airplay on a major station.

“Advertising money talks,” he adds, referring to the power of the beer company’s enormous marketing budget and its potential to pull dollars from uncooperative media.

Is there a downside for Friss?

“If there is,” he says, “I haven’t seen it. At no point in the night do I hold up a beer and say, ‘Let’s have Miller Geunine Draft.’ That’s not what they want you to do. They want to be associated with you. (The audience) will figure if you’re affiliated with it, it must be good. And if it wasn’t a good beer, I wouldn’t drink it.” (Trivia: While in Michigan, Friss was a Stroh’s drinker; prior to the Miller deal, he preferred Budweiser in Florida.)

What does Miller get out of the connection?

“We feel the Bobby Friss Band has a lot of potential,” says spokesperson Mary Houlihan. “We want to help Bobby as much as we can. We think he’s going places. Miller wants to take the burden off promoting their tours. If they’re going to do six weeks of one-nighters, it takes their concentration off the music. We want them to do what they do best — perform their music.

“Miller is looking for a positive lifestyle association with these bands. They’re looking for people to go out, have a good time listening to the bands and the want Miller Genuine Draft to be a part of that. We don’t want them to be salesmen for the beer. One mention would be nice.”

“They’re trying to promote their Miller Genuine Draft Beer,” says Friss. “They’re looking for men 18 to 35.”

Participating bands don’t have to do much once they’re chosen for the Miller program. They place a banner behind them that reads “Miller Presents … ” They are introduced on stage the same way. They are not asked or even encouraged to shill for beer, although if they drink on stage or in a club, the company prefers they be seen with Miller products.The Studio

Drums make a variety of noises depending on how, where and how hard they are hit. Cymbals are even trickier.

Friss is behind the sound board in Morrisound Studios’ main recording studio, listening to drummer Leroy Myers bash the skins and cymbals. Neither is happy with the “crash” coming off the cymbals so they load up in Friss’s band and head for Thoroughbred Music on Hillsborough Avenue. This rock ‘n’ roll supermarket is to musicians what Home Depot is to handymen and Workplace is to small business people: Mecca. The Friss party immediately gets sidetracked by amps, the guitar museum, friends and fellow players.

“It’s a sweetheart isn’t it?” says Friss, caressing a ’62 vintage Stratocaster guitar. “It’s like Christmas everyday here.”

Morris, checking out amplifiers, says working with Friss in the studio is a unique experiencing. “He knows exactly what he wants,” says the engineer. “He’s one of the few self-produced artists who knows what he wants. He makes my job easier. He’s businesslike, efficient. It’s not a party. We get down to work and get results. He’s a very directed guy. I imagine he’s that way about the rest of his life. Planned out, doesn’t leave a lot to chance.”

Eventually, the group catches up with Myers in the drum department and Friss narrates the play-by-play.

“We’re in the drum department,” he begins. “This is the least interesting part of the place. It’s guys who beat on plastic and metal for a living. They pretend it’s music, but we know it’s just noise. Drummer are just diddlers … ”

Myers takes three cymbals at a time into a sound-proof room and Friss, Morris, Brett Wyatt and I make the mistake of following him in. Stick in hand, Myers bangs on each one numb to the Crash! in the rest of our ears.

“They all sound the same to me,” says Friss.

“They’re all different!” protests Myers as Friss laughs.

Myers has lasted longer than any other player in the Friss band — six years. They met as rivals in a Michigan “Battle of the Bands” competition in ’79. Years later, Myers was vacationing in Florida when Friss called. Now, when the band hits the road, Friss and Myers are roommates. (Myers likes his hotel rooms freezing, Friss prefers moderate.)The Next Day

Returning to Morrisound for the last time before the band hits the road for most of April, Friss is concerned about a ballad he has recorded, “Lonely One.”

“It’s still got some holes in it,” he complains to Jim Morris. “It’s hard to believe we have as much as we do in there — it’s still empty.

“It’s good to have some holes,” rebuffs Morris. One recurrent critical blast against Friss is his habit of putting to much sound on his recordings. He’s not from the less is more school of thought.

The Kids

Christmas, 1985.

Rock radio station WYNF and the old Mr. T’s Club 19 sponsor a benefit concert for the Children’s Home of Tampa — a residential treatment center for abused and neglected kids — featuring local bands and master of ceremonies Bobby Friss. They raised $5,000.

For Friss, it was a major turning point: the star turn helps break him out of the pack of club bands and begins his association with the Children’s Home. The connection has grown from playing and organizing the annual holiday show to regular trips to the non-profit’s villas, where Friss plays his guitar, shoots baskets and presents youngsters with a positive role-model. It has also put him in a position to rub elbows with the Children’s Home’s better-known benefactors, including the Bullards and Steinbrenners.

Friss donated proceeds from the song “Suzie Darling” off his first album to the Home. And he’s hoping to organize a “Christmas in July” concert to benefit the Home this summer.

“I did it at first because it made me feel good, giving something back. At Christmas, it’s nice to think about other people,” says Friss. “Now it’s just part of me. It’s not, oh, I gotta do my Christmas thing. I go out there all the time. I break the stereotype of what a guy with long hair who plays in a band can be. They don’t need me to tell kids right and wrong. They like me to come out and be a friend. I like to go because the kids are cool.”

“The kids love him,” says Michele Pernula, public relations coordinator for the Children’s Home. “Your initial thought of a rock ‘n’ roller is not Bobby Friss, other than the long hair. He’s just been a wonderful person, a great role-model for the kids, too. He tells them to keep hanging in there, work hard, and you’ll do well.

Year-’round involvement is important to Friss, because it helps dispel the notion he’s involved just because it makes good P.R. For instance, while he has a basketball court in his own backyard, he prefers to play at the Home.

“I use it all the time,” he says. Then, laughing, “I helped buy it.”

Birdies and Bogeys

When he’s in town and not recording, Friss hits the links with WYNF (95 FM) air personality Russ Albums and Greg Billings of Stranger.

“He’s got that rock ‘n’ roll swing,” says Albums. “It’s a pure powerfade with a grunt like you heard when (boxer) John Mugabi gives you a punch in the solar plexus, a rush of wind like Hurricane Elena through your ears. Then we go looking for the ball.”

On a good day, Friss says he’ll shoot a 90, but 100 is more likely. “I just haven’t turned the corner,” he says. “I’ll shoot a couple good holes, then I fall apart.”

They play “wherever they want to comp us,” says Friss. “We’re fortunate. We have a lot of golf courses that like my music and Russ’s show.”

Golf has been good on the road as a soft public relations tool.

“Most DJs seem to play,” says Friss. “A lot of club owners play. It’s good to get to know people on a more personal level.”Mr. Business

There are three bottles of Miller Genuine Draft beer in the Friss refrigerator and one well-aged bottle of Seagram’s Wild Berry wine cooler. Bobby Friss may have his drinking tricks on stage, but at home, he’s stone cold sober.

“He’s almost a poster boy for the ‘Say No’ syndrome,” according to his father. “He uses (alcohol) in his act, but not in his personal life. You can’t be as busy as he is and be in a fog all time.”

That must be a significant difference between Friss and other local band leaders because virtually everyone interviewed about the musician commented on the sober focus he keeps on business matters.

“He’s been the most business-oriented musician for both the band and the club,” according to Art Haedike of the Porthole. “It’s always been, ‘What do we need so we can both make money?'”

Friss — whose band can draw anywhere from $500 to $4,000 for a night’s work — takes his role as benevolent dictator (his brother Jay jokingly refers to the position as “D.H.” — “Designated Hitler”) seriously. He is responsible for a six-man, full-time payroll — paid weekly in cash, incidentally, because that’s the way the band likes it. The four musicians and two roadies working for him rely entirely on the popularity and market value of the name Bobby Friss.

In the early days, Friss followed a simple philosophy: “In tune, on time, with clean hair.”

And forget about hoping to die before he gets old. This is a home-owning man getting married this June 17 with plans to have children and a future.

“Being 34 — if somebody else started working with a firm at 21, they’ve got 14 years of pennies put away by now. I don’t,” he says. “I’ve got to be prepared for that. But a guy in my position is always thinking you’re going to make that big jump, that you’re going to have so much money, which keeps you going, I guess.”

Leroy Myers says his boss is shrewd.

“We get more airplay than we probably deserve around here,” says the drummer. “That comes down to the fact that Bob, on a daily basis, deals well with people. I’m sure the disc jockeys and club owners see him differently than guys in younger bands who come in and say, ‘Hey, dude,’ and ‘Mind if I smoke a joint?’ They see him as an equal, a guy running his own business.”Yesterday, Today, & Tomorrow

“He just needs that one break to make it to the big time,” says friend Rick Richey. “There’s no one more deserving than Bob.”

“In the nine years I’ve known him, he’s really changed a lot. If you really want to be successful at something like music you have top be single-minded and directed. But he has a good balancer and hasn’t lost that direction. He’s always looking the step ahead. He might be happy where he is,” but he’s not satisfied,” says Michele. “He’s never content to pat himself on the back and say, yeah, I’m doing okay. I think that’s why he’s making progress. And he’s very talented.”

“I like my house. I like being with Michele. This number one in my life. My number two life is being on the road,” says Friss. “But if I get a record deal and it means six months on the road opening concerts for Whitesnake, you can bet your ass I’m going to do it! When you get your shot, you have to take it.”Back to Work

Break over. Back to the stage of the Rock-it Club.

Steeling himself, doubts are dispelled and the party animal is back. As Friss makes his way back to the stage, he autographs pictures for his fans, shakes a lot of hands and says hello to a lot of people whose faces he can instantly attach to a name.

As the red LED crawl for “Ruben’s Bail Bonds” — “Traffic-Criminal-Narcotics … 24-Hour Service … 3 Generations of Successful Bail Bondsmen” — goes across the ceiling of the dance floor, Friss comes clean with the audience.

“I’ve got to admit when I came to the club, I could’ve cared less. Then I started to think about how lucky I am. I’ve got a great band, we’ve got a new album, I’m healthy, I live in the greatest country in the world — what do I have to be pissed about? I feel a little like Jimmy Stewart. I’m the happiest, luckiest man alive! This is the greatest night of my life!”

And he means it.

FRISS BITS
Home: North Tampa

Age: 34

School: Largo High

Love Life: Married girlfriend of nine years, painter Michele Wyatt, on June 17

Guitar: Fender

Professional Secret: Is a Bucanneer season ticket holder; schedules concerts around football games

Personal Flaw: “He doesn’t have a lot of patience with hammers or screwdrivers,” according to Michele.

Conversational Tip: “When I get with my close friends we don’t talk about my last gig. We talk about their kids or Michele’s art classes.”

Listen For: Many Friss songs contain Tampa Bay references. On his new album, the song “Welcome Home” mentions Lowry Park and playing pool at Mr. Stubby’s in Clearwater


Kicking Through the Ashes by Ritch Shydner, Mr. Media Interviews
Kicking Through the Ashes: My Life As A Stand-up in the 1980s Comedy Boom by Ritch Shydner. Order your copy today by clicking on the book cover above!


 

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Bob Merkle for the Defense! 1989 INTERVIEW

(Originally written in November 1989 for Florida Business/Tampa Bay; also published the same year in the Orlando Sentinel Sunday magazine. Merkle died at the age of 58 on May 6, 2003.)

Robert Merkle, United States Attorney, Middle District of Florida (Photo Credit: C-SPAN)
Robert Merkle, United States Attorney, Middle District of Florida (Photo Credit: C-SPAN)

The man who stared down Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, the man who sent Colombian drug lord Carlos Lehder to prison, the man who challenged Connie Mack for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate-yes, Bob “Mad Dog” Merkle-couldn’t turn on a telephone.

He’d never before seen a phone that ran on batteries. The federal government didn’t buy ’em that way.

That wasn’t Merkle’s only problem in setting up his first business since running a lemonade stand as a kid. There was all that governmental red tape, all the bureaus to visit and license fees to be paid. For a man who had spent his entire career in government, it was an eye-opening experience being on the other side.

Until he could afford a secretary, Merkle did his own typing. He rented office space within another law firm until he could get on his feet. Merkle only had two phones-one in his office and one for a parade of temporary secretaries. That left his partner, Joe Magri, in the cold. When someone called for Magri, he’d have to use Merkle’s phone and Merkle would have to wait outside the office.

Then there was the problem of research. Unable to afford their own law library, Merkle and Magri had to spend nights and weekends looking up cases in the Pinellas County Courthouse law library. “It was inconvenient as hell,” says Merkle. “It’s very inefficient having to leave your office, especially when you’re the only one there. You go downtown, look for a parking space then find you don’t have any change for the meter.” Merkle’s notoriety didn’t help; everyone he ran into wondered why the infamous attorney was doing his own searches through the stacks.

When they finally bought their own statutes, Merkle and Magri discovered a new problem: no room in their makeshift office for book shelves. So the lawyers took out the indexes and had to leave the rest of the books in boxes. To find something, whole cartons would have to be shuffled.

“It’s one of those things you look back fondly on,” says Magri, “and thank God it didn’t last long.”

Welcome to the world of private lawyering, former federal prosecutor style.

Among modern U.S. attorneys, only New York-based Rudolph Giuliani enjoyed more renown and infamy in the 1980s than Bob “Mad Dog” Merkle. While Giuliani played the game of federal prosecutor in a bigger arena, there are many similarities between him and Merkle, including national television profiles in 1987-Giuliani on ABC’s “20/20,” Merkle on CBS’s “60 Minutes”-and the failure of both to leapfrog from appointed to elected office. (Giuliani wanted to be mayor of New York in ’89; Merkle chased the role of U.S. Senator in ’88). Now both face at least the immediate future in private practice.

From 1982 to 1988, Merkle went after the biggest fish in the sea of 32 counties making up the Middle District of Florida. His office’s cases never failed to make headlines: the corruption trials of members of the Hillsborough County Commission and Nelson Italiano, a once-prominent figure in Hillsborough County Democratic politics; drug indictments brought against Lehder, Noriega and ex-baseball star Denny McLain; perjury charges against State Rep. Elvin Martinez; investigation of former Hillsborough State Attorney E.J. Salcines; and the prosecution of plastic surgeon Dr. Dale B. Dubin on child-pornography charges.

“We didn’t win all the cases, but nobody does,” says Merkle. “It was claimed I only went after Democrats, that I only went after lawyers-depending on whose ox was being gored, that defined ‘the problem with Merkle.’ If there’s a rap there, it was that I went after everybody. Nobody was above the law.”

Merkle was the first U.S. attorney to successfully extradite and prosecute a member of Colombia’s feared Medellin Cartel. The life sentence drug lord Carlos Lehder received in 1988 was a precursor of the bloody civil war that has since wracked Colombia.

When he won, Merkle lavished compliments upon the American legal system, judge and jurors. When he lost, Merkle explained it away by saying the jurors and judge didn’t understand the case.

Along the way, many respected voices called for his firing, including Florida Governor Bob Martinez (cross-examined by Merkle in the Italiano case), Barry Cohen (Salcines’ attorney), a majority of Florida’s sheriffs, the Tampa Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times. Senators Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles were openly critical of Merkle. (The Times eventually recommended Merkle over Connie Mack in the Senate primary; he refused to accept.)

Robert Merkle, United States Attorney, Middle District of Florida (Photo Credit: C-SPAN)
Robert Merkle, United States Attorney, Middle District of Florida (Photo Credit: C-SPAN)

Clearly, not everyone will be rooting for Merkle to succeed in private practice. Not Tampa attorney Barry Cohen, who sought Merkle’s removal from office with a full-page newspaper ad and petition campaign after the U.S. attorney’s three-year, public investigation of Cohen;s client, E.J. Salcines, damaged the former Hillsborough State Attorney’s reputation. Merkle never brought charges against Salcines, but all the negative publicity probably costing Salcines re-election.

Although Cohen declined comment for Florida Business, he did describe to Morley Safer of “60 Minutes” what he called Merkle’s “McCarthy mentality.” On the nationally broadcast television program, Cohen accused Merkle of ” … inducing people to tell untruths … threatening people that they’ll be indicted if they don’t tell you what you want to hear so that you can manipulate the facts … telling witnesses that you’d better testify in a particular way.”

Merkle and Magri have both had run-ins with Cohen over the years. They say Cohen is an expert at trying cases in the media. “Barry Cohen is a good defense attorney in that he knows how to utilize the media,” says Magri. “He gives talks on how to use the media to help defend a case.” Cohen used a Florida Bar seminar in October as a forum to criticize Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Richard Mensch for prosecuting chiropractor William LaTorre as a way of getting back at Cohen for winning a drug case.

After leaving office, Merkle continued to lose friends and influence enemies. He called his former boss, Attorney General Edwin Meese III, a liar and described Connie Mack and Bob Martinez as a “dynamic duo of sleaze.” When Mack refused to debate him, Merkle traveled the state with a lifesize representation of Mack, which he dubbed “Cardboard Connie.”

Whatever his faults, the sleepy-eyed, sharp-tongued Merkle has never been dull.

* * *

Merkle, a graduate of Notre Dame and reserve fullback on the football team in 1964, spent 17 years in professional law enforcement as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice and as an assistant state attorney in Pinellas County for the Sixth Judicial Circuit before being recommended by then-Senator Paula Hawkins to be U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida in 1982. Merkle left office in mid-1988 to challenge Connie Mack for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, which Mack later won.

After the campaign, Merkle set about finding a job to feed his wife Angela and their nine children. He set up an independent law office in downtown Clearwater and, at age 45, began competing for the first time for clients.

Merkle has done his best to make the setting of private law as similar to public work as possible. He took on his former chief assistant, Joe Magri, as equal partner and hired his former secretary, Dot Bunger, as office manager. Also joining the firm from the U.S. Attorney’s office was Ward Meythaler, who spent five years as an assistant under Merkle; Jeff Albinson spent five years as an assistant state attorney in Pinellas County; Robert Persante, a nationally ranked chess player, folded his sole practitioner office in Tampa to sign on; Dayra Morales is the freshman member of Merkle & Magri, having just graduated University of Florida Law School.

The Merkle & Magri team goes back to a time shortly after Merkle’s appointment by Ronald Reagan in 1982. “I met him at a party that my law firm threw on Capitol Hill,” recalls Magri. An uncle of Merkle’s was a partner in Cummings and Lockwood, the firm where Magri worked. “We got talking about doing some prosecutions and it really sounded good to me. And he liked to play golf.”

Over the years, a good working relationship developed into a deep friendship and respect between the two men. “We complement each other well,” says Merkle. “There are certain talents he has and certain talents I have that mesh. It’s a very good relationship.”

Magri, 41, was promoted to acting U.S. attorney when Merkle left office in June 1988 to run for the Republican senate nomination vs. Connie Mack. Less than six weeks later, then-U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese announced Robert Genzman of Orlando would be the new U.S. attorney for the middle district of Florida. The announcement may have been timed to embarrass Merkle just days before the Republican Senate primary; Merkle has said he had an understanding with Meese that Magri would be his permanent successor. Had he known otherwise, Merkle has publicly suggested, he might not have left office. (Magri served as acting U.S. attorney until early 1989.)

“We’ve been about as close as two lawyers could be in terms of our working relationship over seven years,” says Magri. “I have a great deal of respect for his ethics, his approach to the law. He’s a very aggressive lawyer. He fights very hard for his position. I think he’s an exceptional lawyer.”

There are enough rooms with a Rocky Point waterfront view for five more attorneys in the spacious, 11th-floor Waterford Plaza law offices of Merkle & Magri. There is plenty of work to go around; Merkle himself is likely to surpassed his $70,000 federal salary in the firm’s first year of business. “I wouldn’t commit myself to significant salaries if I didn’t have the work to support it,” he says. Then, adds Merkle with a twinkling eye on the bottom line, “That’s a fundamental business decision.”

One of the advantages to private practice for an attorney with Merkle’s celebrity status is that it draws in all kinds of people with unusual problems. That is also the chief drawback of being Bob Merkle, P.A.

“I get people who, frankly, are nuts,” he says. “I had one guy who claimed he was the past owner of Amtrak, Yankee Stadium and the Skyway Bridge. This was a conspiracy to involve all sorts of people. I didn’t accept him as a client. I used to get these people at the U.S. Attorney’s office but I had a screening process where we could file a letter in the nut file and let it go.

“I spend an awful lot of time talking to people who have no intention, no wherewithal to hire me. They’re looking for emotional support, free advice.”

Then there are clients operating under what might be called “Mad Dog Fever,” which Merkle says has been spread by defense attorneys and newspaper reporters. The “Mad Dog” nickname began in his assistant state attorney days when he took on unwinnable cases and won them.

“My clients have hired me,” says Merkle, “because they perceived I was the meanest, nastiest sonuvabitch in the valley. They feel, ‘I don’t like you, but I want you as my attorney.’ They perceive that I can walk in, wave a wand and they get what they want. But that’s not the way the system works.”

Merkle insists he’s no frothing wild animal; it’s not practical. “I have always been in total control of myself in the courtroom. The image of a mad dog is certainly a repugnant image for a lawyer to have. A mad dog foams at the mouth and attacks everything in a mindless fashion.” The image has been built out of proportion but he hesitates to reject it entirely. “The good side is the way it was coined. It connotes tenacity and fearlessness. The irony is that that fiction hasn’t hurt my business,” he says. “But there’s another side of that. Sometimes when I walk into a courtroom, a judge who hasn’t met me operates on the same principle.”

Joe Magri is the perfect partner for Bob Merkle: he’s used to standing in the “Mad Dog’s” shadow. For seven years of federal prosecutions-successful or not-it was “Merkle this, Merkle that.” Guys like Magri and Meythaler worked just as hard but in relative anonymity. “Joe Magri deserves every bit as much credit as I do for what we did at the U.S. attorney’s office,” says Merkle.

In the private sector, the magnetism of Merkle’s name will be a mixed blessing. It will keep Magri in the shadows but probably make him a rich man.

“I don’t consider that a real issue,” says Magri. “If you want to talk about it from a business standpoint, an attorney that has the ability to attract attention generally attracts cases. That’s very good. That’s what we’re here for. If things go well for me and Bob does well, I’m going to be happy. What’s important is that the firm do well. If that results in Bob Merkle gaining publicity or continuing what he has, that’s something we should embrace.”

* * *

The days of chasing corrupt county commissioners and drug lords are over.

Bob Merkle has made a conscious decision to generally refuse criminal cases. He doesn’t want to belittle a long career of criminal prosecution by switching sides to defend drug dealers. Instead, he has chosen the more dignified civil arena, specializing in lender-liability, environmental and land-use litigation.

“There are obviously differences,” he says. “But there are some fundamental things that remain the same. A hearing is a hearing. A deposition is a deposition. The law is the law. Clients come to me because there’s the prospect of real litigation experience.”

Merkle says he’s not ruling out criminal defense work entirely, but he is unlikely to accept it unless “there is a situation where I can work to further both the client’s interests and the government’s interests at the same time. (Otherwise) it would be an abrupt and unacceptable jolt from what I’ve been committed to for my entire professional career. That’s a prospect when I’m using my skills to defend people who are otherwise guilty. I will not do drug work. I happen to have a personal experience in which I have a very high anti-drug profile. I don’t want to be in the position where I get people off as a routine manner of the way I work. I’m aware of the recidivism rate. I’ve known lawyers who’ve represented criminals and gotten them off. I don’t feel comfortable in using my talents to get these people off. Why should I be a mouthpiece for the Mob? Why should I be in-house counsel for a drug organization, insuring their people get back on the street?”

George Tragos, managing partner, managing partner at the Law Offices of Tragos, Sartes & Tragos, Clearwater, by Bob Andelman
George Tragos, managing partner, managing partner at the Law Offices of Tragos, Sartes & Tragos, Clearwater

George Tragos was a chief assistant under Merkle at the U.S. attorney’s office; like Merkle, Tragos also put in time at the state attorney’s office. But when Tragos left the federal prosecution business, he had no trouble working for the other side.

“I made the transition from prosecuting criminals to defending criminals,” says Tragos. “I’ve done it twice. I just wake up one morning and see the Constitution from the other side. I see words I never saw before. I enjoy practicing law and I enjoy trying cases. I don’t care if I’m prosecuting or defending.

“Bob-his personality didn’t allow him to make that transition,” according to Tragos. “He’s a person that didn’t feel psychologically he could defend criminals. Some people can, some people can’t. (Merkle) has a very negative idea of criminal defense lawyers. If you’re talking political ambition, representing drug smugglers and criminals doesn’t get you a lot of votes. He’s doing the right thing not tarnishing his image as a crimebuster.”

Tragos believes that the different directions he and Merkle have taken has been largely responsible for the end of their social contacts. But, notes Tragos, “In the civil work I’ve done, some of the people I’ve met have been bigger crooks than in criminal.”

Denis M. de Vlaming is another former assistant state attorney who turned the tables on the system and now makes his living as a criminal defense specialist. He expects Merkle’s aggressive style and tactics will be preferred by a certain type of client and that the former prosecutor will do very well in private practice.

“I admire him for not accepting criminal cases,” says de Vlaming. “I’m sure Mr. Merkle could win six-figure fees for drug dealer cases.”

de Vlaming says he once had a client who had been charged with three different burglaries. The man was acquitted of the first two charges. This occurred when Bob Merkle was an assistant state attorney. “The third time, Merkle came in and said, ‘You’re not winning this one,'” recalls de Vlaming. “Judge Fred Bryson has since said it was one of the most enjoyable cases he ever had. We went after each other, nose to nose. And he topped me. He did a good job.”

* * *

Attorneys who have spent a portion of their careers in public service say there are a number of differences between working for Uncle Sam and Joe Shmo.

For one thing, there’s money. When you work for Uncle Sam, he pays all the bills no matter what the cost and whether or not he can cover the debt. That’s important when a Carlos Lehder can pay a reported $2.5 million for his defense. And there’s a regular paycheck to depend on, utility bills are paid and plenty of No. 2 pencils and yellow legal pads. In the case of Merkle and Magri, there were also 47 assistant U.S. attorneys to share the work load.

Joe Shmo, on the other hand, won’t necessarily pay his bill on time. He’ll pay it late if he can and it’s no fun for a dignified attorney to chase down deadbeat clients. And if the firm doesn’t get paid, there’s no blank check from the government to keep the wheels turning. It’s a quick lesson in business for lawyers who haven’t had to worry about such details in government service.

“When you’re a U.S. attorney,” says Merkle, “you’re here for the United States. You have a client who exists, from a certain perspective, in the abstract. When you are a private lawyer, you find out how many problems there are out in the world and how many there are that can’t be solved.”

When you’re with the government, you’re 100 percent lawyer. But when you’re in private practice, you’re 50 percent lawyer and 50 percent businessman. And the business responsibilities can really get out of hand.

“If you open an office and make lots of money, it’s easy. If you’re not making money, you have to budget,” says George Tragos. “I can’t operate at a deficit as the U.S. Government does. Nobody ever said, ‘You can’t do this drug smuggling (case) because we can’t afford it.'”

For attorneys who plan to stay in business and prosper-perhaps even drop a shoe in the political arena-there is an even broader agenda to be considered in private practice.

“You become very conscious of not just your role in a given piece of litigation,” says Joseph Donahey, a partner in Clearwater-based Tanney, Forde, Donahey, Eno and Tanney, “but the practice you see over many years, the relationships you have with colleagues, the relationships you have with the bench. Your approach is different. When you’re a prosecutor, you’re not beholden to anybody. You can approach each case in any manner you choose.”

There is also the growing issue of attorneys who make campaign contributions to judges. Merkle supports blind trusts for judges or judicial candidates so that the influence of law firms making large financial contributions could not give a hint of judicial impropriety. “I guarantee you’ll see contributions go down,” says Merkle. “I’m not going to indulge in the practice I’ve heard other lawyers do-routinely contributing to incumbents on the bench. Somebody may get their nose bent out of shape by my saying there are incompetents on the bench. But there are incompetents on the bench.”

A potential drawback for a Bob Merkle-type attorney shifting gears is the distinct lack of limelight surrounding most lawyer’s everyday affairs.

“One of the things you really have to develop a means of handling is the hum-drum routine of all our lives,” says Joe Donahey. “I’m looking at a mound of work. I have the same commitment to each of these files yet there’s probably only two that that any challenge or any meaningful legal interest.”

Not every case, in other words, is a international drug cartel or politician with his fingers in the cookie jar. The average lawyer rarely makes headlines.

Spending time on the government payroll has been lucrative for many people who earn huge consulting fees, write books or end up as partners in nationally respected law firms. Some simply add marquee value; some bring real insight.

George Tragos has says when Bob Merkle was appointed to be U.S. attorney, the two discussed Tragos’ joining the team. Tragos told Merkle he couldn’t afford the pay cut but ultimately used his savings to maintain the lifestyle which he had become accustomed to as a high-price lawyer. “It was worth it,” says Tragos in retrospect. “I made contacts all over the country. Now my business is 60 percent federal.”

* * *

There are many stories floating around that reinforce the “Mad Dog” nickname Merkle earned as a young buck coming up through James Russell’s Pinellas County State Attorney’s office in the ’70s..

“Bob Merkle in the courtroom was like a linebacker bursting through the line,” says Denis M. de Vlaming. “He’s extremely intense, almost physically imposing. When he argued, he would walk right up to you and argue. Almost to the point of intimidation so his opponent cowers. It’s a style that’s only his.

“I went snow skiing in Vermont with him one year. I don’t know if I’d go again,” says de Vlaming. “He has to go faster than you, he has to go further than you. He has to beat you at everything. We had an argument over dinner. He always has to be right. He carries over that competitive aggressiveness into every aspect of life.”

“The guy is an excellent trial lawyer,” says George Tragos. “But if I see him in an airport-as well as we know each other-I have to say hello first. He’s not personable. That’s just the way he is. But I like him.

“You have two schools of thought,” says Tragos. “There’s people who really hate the guy. And there’s people who think he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. I think he did more good than bad. The people-they got their money’s worth with him. Not everything he did turned out right, but on balance, he did more good than bad.”

* * *

Is Bob Merkle merely on hiatus from public office? When he does run again, will it be for governor?

“Ah,” he answers, “the old question-resting-on-a-presumption trick.”

Those who know him best expect the “Mad Dog” to slip his leash again and run for office after feathering his private practice with a layer of cash insulation. “I personally think he’ll run for public office again,” says George Tragos. “I don’t think he can be happy so far out of the limelight. I don’t think money motivates him.”

Joe Magri—who knows exactly what his partner’s plans are—is cagier about making predictions.

“One of the important things in life,” says Bob Merkle’s law partner, “is that people who are doing that which they want to do tend to be the most happy and productive in life. If you spend the time swimming against your emotional current, you achieve less. I think it’s important for people to maintain the options that exist.”

If he does run again, Merkle will have to plan his next campaign better than his first, which began with just 70 days to go before the primary. (Connie Mack had been beating the hustings for more than a year.) The first campaign cost a remarkably paltry $70,000 but ate up Merkle’s federal retirement, money he lent to the campaign and another loan he is still paying off. But he has no regrets.

“It was an ad lib effort, an amateurish campaign by necessity. It was fun in that regard. I think I performed pretty credibly,” says Merkle.

Not surprisingly, Merkle isn’t ready to tip his hand. He certainly won’t rule out another shot at election-“it depends on a lot of things,” he says, then adds, “I have no intention of running for governor.

“I don’t have much patience with people who say, ‘You have to run for governor.’ I say, ‘Oh, yeah? Who’s going to feed my kids?’ I didn’t see anybody in October (after he lost the senate primary) offering to give me a hand. Not a soul. Bitter? No. Practical? Yes. I’ve been approached many times. I say, get real. Don’t talk ideals or how great I’d be. Talk the language. Talk about what I need to be an effective candidate. I’m a pretty tough, resilient guy. I was going 24 hours a day in that campaign. I’d be willing to do it again. But there’s got to be a germ of success. I’m not going to be somebody’s spear-carrier. There should be enough people now that know I’m a credible candidate.”

end

Bob Merkle Website • Wikipedia


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Before art took off, Lance Rodgers rocked at DEFCON-1! INTERVIEW

(This story originally appeared in Music magazine, May 17, 1984.)

Artist Lance Rodgers in Jacksonville, Florida (photograph via Facebook), by Bob Andelman
Artist Lance Rodgers in Jacksonville, Florida (photograph via Facebook)

By Bob Andelman

The name refers to a military state of readiness, the highest level of nuclear war anticipation.

DEFCON-1, a term made familiar to millions in last summer’s film War Games, is an attention-getting sure
thing.

Encountering DEFCON-1 is something less than walking into a war zone, though. An off-the-wall, amusing, rocking demilitarized zone, maybe.

Lance Rodgers is the front man for the band. He is a man to be reckoned with and respected, first because of his size, and second for-the many talents he possesses. Along with lead guitarist Larry Lynch, Rodgers composes most of the original music performed by DEFCON-1 and writes all the lyrics.

Take a look at excerpts from his song “Third World Girls””:

Snell Isle spoiled child

Raised in a rich style

With some alien “help” to raise a preppy clone

“Mummy & Daddy” just didn’t have the time ..

Third World, Third World Girls They’re the ones with his

attention

They’re his refugee redemption

Third World, Third World Girls Cambodi bodies not too

shoddy

Loves their sensual karate.

© 1984 All Rights Reserved

Other curious compositions include “Low Rent/High Life” and “Grovel For Love.” Of the latter, Rodgers has a vivid ending to the llve version done on his knees before a dancing, gyrating female.

To introduce “Sex” at Club Detroit a few weeks back, Rodgers barked, “This song is for those Tyrone girls over there … Heterosexuals—Dance!!”

“Some people take Lance the wrong way,” admitted keyboard player Chad Dobransky. “Well, he’s not crazy—he’s just very vivid. They can’t understand how a guy his size moves so fast.”

DEFCON-1 has 10 original songs in their club set,
only one of which is slow and/or serious: “Gray Blankets.” For the rest of the evening they cover Thomas Dolby, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and early Joe Jackson.

Even as Rodgers adds the vocal colors to much of DEFCON-1’s work, Dobransky presents a flavorful sound on his synthesizers. The rest of the band fills out with Monte Video on bass and recent addition Bob Breault on drums.
 They are a strong outfit, leaning heavily toward power-pop strains.

Previously known as Doc, the band originally featured Rodgers on drums and congas with a woman singing lead. That didn’t work out and Rodgers moved from occasional to full-time front duties.

Between them, Rodgers and Dobransky make the band a visual humanscape. The larger Rodgers is nonetheless fleet of foot, while Dobransky in a character in the Rick Nielsen mold, like a cartoon, bald on top, wearing a pencil-thin mustache on the tip of his upper lip and an equally narrow necktie.

Dobransky’s home is
 both endearing to his personality and to his band. There
are his record, hat and cork collections on display, dozens of mirrors on the walls from his days as a liquor salesman, nearly 200 of his trademark ties, and a bomb shelter (with its two-foot thick walls, “it’d be the ideal place for a band to rehearse”) in the front yard.

The living room is a tribute to his friend Rodgers, featuring a trio of black and white photographs by the singer, airbrushed with color. The sharp images of old cars and female legs with off-color hues are impressive, as are the homemade Christmas cards Rodgers sent his friend.

Rodgers has found many outlets for his abilities. Some of his paintings will hang at the Tampa Museum this summer, the result of being noticed at the Gasparilla arts festival, and he also designs all the DEFCON-1 promotional materials. That includes the: individually hand-painted buttons the group sells for a dollar and a monthly new wave calendar the band sends out.

Promotion is an important part of DEFCON-1 and it is all done in-house by the band members. They blanket bulletin boards and liquor stores with flyers announcing heir gigs. On his coffee table Dobransky has “The Entrepreneur’s Manual” by Richard M. White, Jr.

“It costs the club owner $20,” Dobransky said of the publicity blitz, “and it’s the best 20 bucks he ever spent ’cause we hit everywhere.”

As Doc, this band once peaked as opening act for the B-52s at Tampa Jai-Alai last year. But as DEFCON-1, they were “Rock Stars” for 2,000 screaming, supercharged, nubile young ladies at a Girl Scout Jamboree at the Florida State Fairgrounds recently.

“All the girls were between the ages of 12 and 17,” Dobransky said. “In the contract was written ‘No obscene gestures and movements’ … Bob Breault changed his shirt between sets and they attacked him … We’re all signing autographs and I remember thinking ‘These are the kids that buy records!’ … I was so pumped up.”

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Elizabeth Kovachevich The Judge is a Lady (Tampa Bay Life)

(Originally published in Tampa Bay Life in 1989)

Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich, right
Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich, right

By Bob Andelman

“If I had any respect left for Elizabeth Kovachevich, that disappeared when she locked me up. She had a good public image, but I discovered firsthand that she was willing and able to abuse her power … The hanging judge had a rope for every occasion.” — Denny McLain from his book, Strikeout

CLEARLY, Denny McLain thought the worst, wrote book while in jail, then got outy the last pitcher to win 31 games in major league baseball, was not a great fan of Elizabeth Kovachevich, a United States district court judge in Tampa. Few would be fond of the person who sentences them to 23 years in federal prison. McLain is more than a little direct in his criticism of Her Honor in his 1988 book, Strikeout. Remarking on her work in his trial on racketeering, conspiracy, extortion and describe her drug dealing charges, McLain uses the following descriptions: “sham,” “botched,” “farce,” “she went nuts,” “ringmaster of the circus,” and “outrageous.”

That was before McLain decided to acknowledge he was guilty of racketeering and possession of cocaine with intent to sell. It was written while McLain was serving 29 months behind bars, before the “hanging judge” commuted his sentence and put him on probation.

McLain has a new message, suggested to him by Judge Kovachevich: don’t believe everything you read in his book. He may have been hasty in his character attacks against Tampa’s most controversial jurist.

“I always had mixed emotions at what had gone on during the trial,” says the ex-Cy Young Award winner by telephone from Fort Wayne, Ind. “But she proved to me she had the ability to be fair. She showed us some insight that I didn’t know existed. She didn’t have any bitterness. She gave me back my life, my family. She turned out to be quite a lady. I can’t get over it.”

•••

During 1988, the name Kovachevich was synonymous with controversy.

Besides the McLain case, the single, 52-year-old has been strongly identified with two landmark AIDS rulings. She was responsible for the settlement reached in the complaint of Arcadia’s Ray brothers — Ricky, Robert and Randy — who sued the DeSoto County School Board when they were refused admittance to public schools because they had contracted AIDS.

And arguments in the case of Eliana Martinez — a mentally handicapped 7-year-old girl who is in the advanced stages of the AIDS virus — may outlast the Tampa child whose mother has been fighting to find her a place in public school. Kovachevich caused a maelstrom when she ruled that Eliana could only attend school if she was kept in a glass isolation booth. The idea was inspired by a 1976 made-for-television movie starring John Travolta, “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.” Neither the Hillsborough County School Board, Eliana’s mother, Rosa, nor a federal appeals court found the ruling acceptable.

Those were just the most recent cases that put Kovachevich’s name in the spotlight as prominently as the defendants’ before her. Here are a few others:

* In 1987, Kovachevich ruled that a menorah in front of Tampa’s City Hall — celebrating the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah — violated constitutional safeguards separating church and state; for the city to light candles would suggest Tampa was endorsing one holiday over another. The ceremony was canceled over the protests of the Jewish community, which is awaiting a ruling from a higher court on the issue. (Kovachevich is a practicing Roman Catholic; Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, who lit the first candle in 1986, is Jewish.)

* As an adjunct to the McLain case, Kovachevich removed his attorney, Arnold D. Levine, for evidence tampering and initiated a formal rebuke of Levine by a three-member panel of federal judges.

* When Clarence Ferguson, an employee of the National Marine Fisheries Service in St. Petersburg, was fired for absenteeism due to alcoholism — which the federal government recognizes as a disease — Kovachevich set off a national dialogue with her ruling. She said that as a federal employee with a disease, Ferguson should be considered a handicapped worker and was protected from being fired without first being helped. She wrote that Ferguson’s supervisors had a responsibility to help him before they fired him.

* Arthur Jones, multimillionaire inventor of Nautilus exercise equipment, sued ABC-TV’s news program 20/20 for $4 billion in 1988 for defamation of character, reportedly the largest libel suit ever brought against a news organization. Kovachevich ruled against Jones.

•••

Elizabeth Kovachevich never dreamed of becoming a judge.

After a successful private law practice in St. Petersburg and a term with the Florida Board of Regents — during which she gained notoriety for calling coed dormitories “taxpayers’ whorehouses” — friends started whispering the words “Judge Kovachevich” in her ear.

“I thought, well, they feel I have something to offer,” she recalls. “I was the first woman who ran for circuit judge (in Pinellas County). It wasn’t until after I got into the position that I realized I was doing what I was meant to do.”

Her first campaign sought to get Kovachevich elected and teach the public how to pronounce her last name (Ko-VATCH-uh-vitch). Remembering the old Burma Shave signs that she once saw while driving across America on Highway 66, Kovachevich found the method worked for selling candidates as well as shave cream.

“We put a KO on one sign. Then 50 feet down the road we put the VACH, then the E and the last sign would be VICH. And then we would run another set of them. KO-VACH-E-VICH, KO-VACH-E-VICH. It was like a choo-choo train. All the way up Fourth Street (in St. Petersburg), you could see the signs.”

Three Republican presidents have had a hand in guiding Kovachevich’s career. Richard Nixon appointed her to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships in 1973. Gerald Ford first nominated her to be a U.S. District Judge in 1976, but it took until 1982 for Ronald Reagan — via former U.S. Senator Paula Hawkins’ recommendation — to finally appoint Kovachevich to a lifetime job wearing judicial robes in the Middle District of Florida. She spent two years in Orlando and then transferred to Tampa.

Republican Congressman Bill Young has been a fan of Kovachevich’s since she clerked for him back in 1960 when he was a state senator in 1960.

“She is very intense and determined to do what’s right,” according to Young. Kovachevich, he goes on, is “rather inflexible, but determined to do what in her heart she considers is the right thing.”

Bob Merkle, former U.S. attorney and Republican senatorial candidate, also comes across as being in Kovachevich’s corner. It was Merkle, incidentally, who brought the original charges against Denny McLain.

“She’s very bright, very personable,” he says. “While I haven’t agreed with everything she’s done, all in all I think she’s going to be a great judge. She’s everything you look for: she’s not distant or arrogant.”

•••

Tampa still hasn’t made up its mind about the fast-talking, no-nonsense redhead who daily admonishes slow-moving, jive-talking lawyers to move it or lose it.

“In show business,” she says with a laugh, “they would say Tampa is a tough ticket.”

When the Hillsborough County Bar Association asked its members to rate local judges, Kovachevich received the most negative response of the city’s nine federal judges. Hillsborough’s 56 judges, her rating was fifth from the bottom.

Dallas Albritton, president of the Bar in 1987 when the results were released, cautions against interpreting the results as negative.

“Only a small portion of lawyers (500 out of a possible 2,000) chose to respond. I would hope they were not just lawyers with an axe to grind,” he says. From his own experience, Albritton adds, “I think she’s a crackerjack judge. She’s no-nonsense; she recognizes hot air when she hears it. I like to appear in her court. She’s a lively judge.”

Not everyone is taken with Kovachevich.

“I think she did a terrible job,” says a man who appeared before the judge and prefers to remain anonymous while his case is appealed to a higher court. “I was told by my lawyer that the last judge you want is her.”

•••

Two AIDS cases presented before Kovachevich in 1988 drew nationwide attention to Courtroom E in downtown Tampa’s federal courthouse.

“She was faced with a potential media circus,” says Judy Kavanaugh, attorney for the Ray brothers. “Some judges are very sensitive to the press and very hostile. But she handles it real well. She really tried to be fair. I she was concerned about the Ray family. She was weighing that with her concern for the public interest.”

In cases such as the Rays’ and Eliana Martinez’s, judges like Kovachevich are faced with setting new precedents or giving new interpretations to established decisions. With respect to her consideration and rulings in AIDS cases, Kovachevich has applied 40-year-old tuberculosis and polio cases and a one-year-old New York AIDS case (Arline v. Long Island). Her general conclusion: discrimination against AIDS victims is illegal and doctors — not judges — should make medical decisions when someone is too ill to interact normally with society.

“(AIDS) is a communicable disease,” says the judge. “Tuberculosis was and is a communicable disease. The Ray order harkened back to the order on polio. Polio, when I was a child, terrified people, with as strong an emphasis on the word terror as you can make. You could see pictures of adults in these iron tombs, iron lungs. Until the vaccine was discovered, there was no hope for people.

“When I was a child back in Illinois, communicable diseases were dealt with on a quarantine basis. If you had chicken pox, measles, whatever — you were out of school. You were home. And everybody in that home was isolated. The notice was on the door and that was it. No ifs, ands, or buts. Public health dictated it. Here in Tampa, in the not-so-distant past she was concerned about the Ray family. She was weighing that with her concern for the public interest.”

In cases such as the Rays’ and Eliana Martinez’s, judges like Kovachevich are faced with setting new precedents or giving new interpretations to established decisions. With respect to her consideration and rulings in AIDS cases, Kovachevich has applied 40-year-old tuberculosis and polio cases and a one-year-old New York AIDS case (Arline v. Long Island). Her general conclusion: discrimination against AIDS victims is illegal and doctors — not judges — should make medical decisions when someone is too ill to interact normally with society.

“(AIDS) is a communicable disease,” says the judge. “Tuberculosis was and is a communicable disease. The Ray order harkened back to the order on polio. Polio, when I was a child, terrified people, with as strong an emphasis on the word terror as you can make. You could see pictures of adults in these iron tombs, iron lungs. Until the vaccine was discovered, there was no hope for people.

“When I was a child back in Illinois, communicable diseases were dealt with on a quarantine basis. If you had chicken pox, measles, whatever — you were out of school. You were home. And everybody in that home was isolated. The notice was on the door and that was it. No ifs, ands, or buts. Public health dictated it. Here in Tampa, in the not-so-distant past if you had tuberculosis in a communicable state, they picked you up and took you to the tuberculosis hospital.”

Kovachevich sought to establish precedent in the Ray case that would cause people who might discriminate or seek to exclude AIDS victims from school or the workplace to think twice. Kavanaugh believes the judge achieved her objective.

“I had at least seven more school exclusion cases (pending),” says the lawyer. “After the Ray decision I sent letters and said, ‘Here’s the Ray decision — let the kids back in school.’ The Rays also hoped it would have a ripple effect and it has. Decisions like the Ray decision send a message.”

In the Eliana Martinez case — which Kavanaugh was not involved — Kovachevich agreed the child should be allowed in public school, as in the Ray case, but only in a plastic isolation booth, which harkened back to the days of quarantine and iron lungs. Kavanaugh feels the judge’s ruling was only partially consistent with the Ray case.

“I think the legal standard that the judge enunciated is consistent,” says Kavanaugh. “I do not necessarily agree with the approach taken. I think further evidence would be required to put that child in a glass booth. I do not think Eliana Martinez needs to be in a glass booth.”

•••

The law requires that anyone accused of a criminal if you had tuberculosis in a communicable state, they picked you up and took you to the tuberculosis hospital.”

Kovachevich sought to establish precedent in the Ray case that would cause people who might discriminate or seek to exclude AIDS victims from school or the workplace to think twice. Kavanaugh believes the judge achieved her objective.

“I had at least seven more school exclusion cases (pending),” says the lawyer. “After the Ray decision I sent letters and said, ‘Here’s the Ray decision — let the kids back in school.’ The Rays also hoped it would have a ripple effect and it has. Decisions like the Ray decision send a message.”

In the Eliana Martinez case — which Kavanaugh was not involved — Kovachevich agreed the child should be allowed in public school, as in the Ray case, but only in a plastic isolation booth, which harkened back to the days of quarantine and iron lungs. Kavanaugh feels the judge’s ruling was only partially consistent with the Ray case.

“I think the legal standard that the judge enunciated is consistent,” says Kavanaugh. “I do not necessarily agree with the approach taken. I think further evidence would be required to put that child in a glass booth. I do not think Eliana Martinez needs to be in a glass booth.”

•••

The law requires that anyone accused of a criminal offense has a right to his or her day in court within 70 days of arrest. That’s a tall order for a judiciary that is already overworked and underpaid. But in Judge Kovachevich’s court, if it’s fast justice you need, it’s fast justice you’ll get.

“All she cared about was her precious docket and how many hours we were behind schedule,” wrote Denny McLain in his book, wherein he describes how during his months-long trial, Kovachevich extended the court’s typical day from seven hours to 9-1/2 hours, exhausting all parties involved. “To hell with my rights … the woman was obsessed with the clock.”

“I’ve heard she really pushes cases along, and that antagonizes lawyers who drag their feet,” says Bruce Jacob, dean of Stetson University’s College of Law and a one-time fellow student of the judge’s. “I admire her for trying to move cases along.”

“In our case, she did that,” confirms attorney Judy Kavanaugh, noting that the Ray case was scheduled for February but the judge abruptly pushed it up to October. “At the time, it was painful. But in our case, it made us get our act together.”

“She manages her time well,” says St. Petersburg attorney Tony Battaglia. “Judges who are very conservative have a great concern about the docket because everyone has a right to their day in court.”

Kovachevich brags about her ability to do three things at once while sitting in judgment on the federal bench. While hearing testimony in January at the drug trafficking case of Pedro Gomez, she could be seen reading, writing and occasionally making conversation or exchanging notes with one of her court clerks. Remarkably, she never skipped a beat through a parade of witnesses, objections or even a tired looking jury.

“I’ve been criticized by some people that did not realize I am capable of reading and doing two and three things at once and paying full attention to each one of them,” she says. “When I’m up on the bench and in a long trial, there is no way that paperwork can get out of this office without having it funneled in and out (of the courtroom). … It’s very fatiguing to do this. I’m not going to tell you that coming home at the end of the day you are not tired. Mentally, you are whipped! But if I only did one thing at a time, the two other things wouldn’t get done. And you multiply that in trials.”

And heaven help the attorney who doesn’t wrap up a case at precisely 4 p.m. Along about 3:55 in the Gomez trial, Kovachevich began staring at the clock on the wall as the lawyers examined, cross-examined, redirected and re-redirected.

“Any re-redirect?” she asked the prosecution.

“Just one question, your honor.”

“I knew there would be.”

And moments later, to the defense: “Any re-recross?”

“Just a moment, your honor.” It was five minutes after 4 and Kovachevich’s eyes were rolling in frustration. When the questioning was completed, the jury was led out. Before adjourning, the judge didn’t ask, she told the attorneys they had better be ready to wrap it up tomorrow. The underlying message: speed it up, fellas.

Numbers mean a lot to Kovachevich and she has quite a few of them committed to memory. To wit: She has more than 500 civil and 200 criminal cases pending at any given time. When she came to Tampa, her docket included cases as old as 16 years, many of which have only recently been concluded. She has done her part to raise the middle district’s case completion rate from 55th out of 94 in the nation to 2nd. The middle district judges are first in case completions in the 11th Circuit (Florida, Georgia and Alabama).

“I take a great deal of pride in that,” she says. “We provided resolutions for people. That’s what we’re there to do. We could sit and cogitate about it indefinitely and maybe we’d get through with one case in an elongated period of time. But what about all these other people waiting for our attention?

“I believe that Chief Justice (William) Rehnquist said it very well. He said that in our zeal for perfection we take so long to contemplate cases that other people are not getting any justice at all, just or unjust.

“We are getting our work out, getting our decisions out,” she concludes. “If people are not satisfied and they have a basis for appeal, fine. At least we’ve given them an answer.”

•••

“It is never a pleasure to sentence anyone. It is a duty to perform.” — Judge Kovachevich, before sentencing Bentley A.McFarlane to 15 years in prison on drug charges

•••

“She is singularly one of the most spectacular women I know,” says Roy Speer, a former Stetson University law school classmate of Kovachevich’s and now chairman of the board at the Home Shopping Network. He knows the federal judge about as well as anyone could.

As a student in the late 1950s, Speer used to go to school during the day and pay his way by working nights. Because Roy and Elizabeth were a bit of an item in those days, he was a regular at the Kovachevich dinner table in St. Petersburg.

“Before I went to work,” recalls Speer, “her mother used to feed me. I became like a dog — you feed ’em, they become very close.”

Speer was attracted to the future federal judge by her sense of humor, her high spirits and her fancy footwork.

“She was a fabulous dancer … one of the best,” he says. “She’s just a lot of fun to be around.”

Kovachevich was the only woman in her 1961 graduating class. There were at least two other future judges, however: Circuit Court Judges Fred Bryson and Vincent Giglio. Another Stetson alumnus of the period: State Attorney James T. Russell.

Although the judge prefers not to talk about her parents, they gently smile and look over her shoulder in two sets of photos behind her desk. Speer describes her mother as a simple person, “a great cook (with) a great sense of humor.” She must have made a good match for Kovachevich’s father, a retired postman who knew everyone in town and whom Speer affectionately calls “a clown … Very gregarious, like Elizabeth.”

Her parents’ serious illness in recent years has caused the judge to put aside her social life. It is one of the reasons she has never married, according to friends.

“She probably has one of the greatest devotions to her parents of any person I’ve ever known,” says Speer. “Elizabeth is an only child. She was always very close to her mother and father. It’s a very close-knit family. She has sacrificed her life to them.”

Hobbies are few and far between, with the little time left after working all week and caring for her parents. Kovachevich takes briefs and precedents home every weekend. She tries to find time to hit a tennis ball or run, however; photos and trophies in her conference room attest to the judge’s athletic ability.

•••

Elizabeth Kovachevich isn’t convinced that the controversy that always seems to swirl around her has anything to do with her being a woman.

“I don’t know if it’s having a woman on the bench,” she says. “Having this woman on the bench, I would think that’s a more obvious observation.

“When I was an attorney,” remembers Kovachevich, “good friends of mine would say, ‘I really like the way you practice law.’ And I’d say, ‘Why is that?’ And they’d say to me — and mean it as a compliment — ‘Because you think like a man.'”

“It’s still a boys’ club,” says Judy Kavanaugh, “but it is changing. Judge Kovachevich has had many controversial cases. She’s a tough law ‘n order judge. She’s known for that.”

Kovachevich thinks that women have a long way to go in the legal profession before men naturally treat them as equals.

“It takes more time,” she says, “for a woman to ‘prove herself’ to whoever is looking, than perhaps for a man and that is just the way of the world. When I became the first woman judge in Pinellas County, the bar did not endorse me for the position. I had lawyers come to me and say, ‘You know they’re just waiting out there on the streets to see what you’re going to do.’ And I was bemused by that. I could almost look out the office window and see everyone lined up on the street saying, ‘I wonder what she’s going to do next?'”

end

©2017 All rights reserved. No portion may be reproduced without the express written permission of the author.


Mean Business: How I Save Bad Companies and Make Good Companies Great, Albert J. Dunlap, Chainsaw, Mr. Media Interviews
Mean Business: How I Save Bad Companies and Make Good Companies Great by Albert J. Dunlap with Bob Andelman. Order your copy now by clicking on the book cover above!


 

The Party AuthorityThe Party Authority in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland!

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Copyright 2017 Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman

A Tour of St. Petersburg’s Murals (Visit Florida)

Frida Kahlo mural, St. Petersburg Florida, Visit Florida, Photo by Bill Serne for VISIT FLORIDA
Frida Kahlo mural, St. Petersburg Florida, (Photo by Bill Serne for VISIT FLORIDA)

Story by Bob Andelman, Photographs by Bill Serne

As outdoor murals have multiplied across St. Petersburg, it seems everyone has a favorite.

Science fiction fan? Get a picture of you and your friends running from the city’s former landmark – an inverted pier – giving chase on spider legs and shooting deadly lasers at tourists. The “War of the Worlds” design – itself painted over an antique Coca-Cola sign – is by the Vitale Brothers. (Corner of Baum Avenue & Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N)

Science fan without the fiction? Pose beside a Carrie Jadus portrait of Nikola Tesla, whose inventions often rivaled those of Thomas Edison himself. (2232 5th Avenue S)

Admirer of Mexican writer Frieda Kahlo? There’s a popular Jennifer Kosharek mural of her face in “Mural Alley,” located downtown behind the stores on the 600 North block of Central Avenue.

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Ringling Museum of Art: Old Masters, New World (Visit Florida)

Ringling Museum of Art, Bill Serne for VISIT FLORIDA
Ringling Museum of Art (Bill Serne for VISIT FLORIDA)

Story by Bob Andelman; Photographs by Bill Serne

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota is anything but a circus, despite its familiar name.

Found in a remarkably gorgeous, serene setting on the Intracoastal Waterway amidst banyan trees that are themselves works of art for their endlessly intricate branches, the museum campus is a natural attraction.

Inside, the 21 original galleries built by the famed circus man are a source of never-ending change and wide-eyed wonder. Don’t take our word for it, though; The Ringling is a State Art Museum of Florida and part of Florida State University. And the facility itself is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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WTVT Ch. 13’s Kelly Ring: The Reluctant Anchor in Tampa PROFILE

Kelly Ring (WTVT, Tampa Bay, Ch. 13)
Kelly Ring (WTVT, Tampa Bay, Ch. 13)

(Originally published in Tampa Bay Life in 1991)

By Bob Andelman

Call her the reluctant anchor.

She’s knock-down beautiful, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed stunner, the kind of woman the television camera loves and the home viewing audience can’t seem to resist. But being a talking head on the evening news is about the last thing on earth Kelly Ring ever envisioned for herself.

Tonight at 6 and 11 p.m. she may seem oh, so natural sitting besides co-anchor Frank Robertson, questioning reporters in the field, chatting up the weather with Roy or sports with Andy. But behind those twinkling baby blues, a simple mantra is being repeated over and over again.

“I am a reporter. … I am a reporter. … I am a reporter.”

The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour--and the (Ongoing, Imperfect, Co mplicated) Triumph of Women in TV News by Sheila Weller
The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour–and the (Ongoing, Imperfect, Co mplicated) Triumph of Women in TV News by Sheila Weller. Order your copy today by clicking on the book cover above!

Before being arm-twisted into an early morning news anchor seat at WTVT Ch. 13 a few years ago, Kelly Ring was a no-nonsense reporter from the highly respected University of Missouri School of Journalism with a special talent for tapping into Tampa Bay’s most heartbreaking stories.

She and cameraman Brad Wasson were an inseparable team for years, winning two Emmys in 1989 for “The Tarnished Years,” a series and documentary about mistreatment of the elderly. They spent three months with an Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) investigator, investigating abuse in nursing homes. (Ring won a third Emmy that year for a collection of stories.)

“You don’t find individuals that look the way Kelly does that possess the reportorial skills that she does,” says Bob Franklin, vice president of news and operations at WTVT.

Over the years, Ring and Wasson developed a special relationship with Clifford and Louise Ray, parents of three hemophiliac boys who were accidentally given AIDS-tainted blood transplants.

“That was the first big story I did here,” recalls Ring. “When it started in ’86, people didn’t realize what would come of it. We followed it through.”

Wasson was Ring’s partner on virtually every story about the Rays from 1986-89. “We used to leave for Arcadia as soon as she finished the morning newscast,” he recalls. “I got in the habit of bringing an extra pillow so she could conk out on the way there. It was a two-hour drive and she was already putting in 12- to 14-hour days.

“It was an intensely depressing experience,” says Wasson. “We were there practically every day for months. I know she, on several occasions, sent gifts for the kids. It affected her quite a bit, the unfairness of AIDS, the way they got the disease through misfortune. Three innocent kids.”

The Rays developed a personal relationship with Ring that continues today even though other Ch. 13 reporters may cover the story of their struggles and heartache on a day-to-day basis.

“When she first started reporting on us,” recalls Louise Ray, “the media was the only friend we had. We got real close to Kelly. She was real people. And when she reported, she did her job. When she left you didn’t feel raped. Some reporters leave you feeling that way. She’s not only out to get the facts and get the story. She cared. And that makes a difference. My kids love her. She always had time to spend with them off-camera.”

Wasson says his former partner’s ability to project genuine sincerity is what makes her so successful in the field.

“She doesn’t have that practiced, polished smoothness; I think that’s a strength,” he says. “We would go into a situation and I would be convinced we weren’t going to get squat. But in minutes, people would spill their guts to her. She has the ability to get people to open up. Kelly projects a sense of vulnerability that makes people want to be nice to her.”

o o o

The evening anchor’s day at WTVT begins with the 2 p.m. news meeting and continues on through midnight.

Such hours don’t allow the flexibility Ring came to enjoy as a morning anchor; no longer can she chase stories all day. So when Ring replaced Kelly Craig on the evening news on April 2, 1990, she had to learn to pick and choose her spots more carefully.

Saudi Arabia was as good a place to test Ring’s reporter-over-anchor state of mind as anywhere. She was the only woman last December on a 48-hour, pre-Desert Storm press junket from the Tampa Bay area.

The flight aboard the C-130 military transport plane was long and arduous. Each member of the press was given a gas mask and a handbook on the Persian Gulf region. “The military said make sure you understand this. There’s so many cultural differences. You better know what you can and can’t do — especially you, Kelly,” she recalls.

In Riyadh she saw the “human” side of life in the Middle East — a woman was stoned for adultery in Judgement Square at high noon. She interviewed Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf before he became “Stormin’ Norman.” She talked to troops from the bay area and brought back pictures of them for their families. She saw Patriot missile batteries where bored soldiers passed the days by playing cards. Saudi kids who had probably never seen hair so blonde pointed and stared. She was tossed out of a store by the proprietor because her head was uncovered.

She didn’t sleep for the entire two days, eager to take in every sight, every experience that was available.

“TV news people have that reputation of being more worried about their hair than the story,” says Paul Wilborn, who represented the Tampa Tribune on the junket. “But Kelly threw herself in. She worked hard in Saudi. I think she’s working to develop her journalism skills to match her anchor role. She tried to soak up as much as she could. She actually perspired.”

Within 24 hours of her return, WTVT aired a one-hour special based on the sights, sounds and impressions of her trip. “It was the best assignment I ever had,” says Ring. “I’m going to go back there on my own some day.”

o o o

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD)
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD). Order your copy today by clicking on the DVD above!

Frank Robertson says his new co-anchor on WTVT’s “Eyewitness News” made a smooth transition from reporter to anchor because of her journalism skills.

“She brings a lot to the table,” according to Robertson. “People saw her reporting every day for four years before she became an anchor. She grew into the position and is growing in the position, as well. The acceptance of her in the market is great.”

Off-air, the co-anchors sit side-by-side at a computer pod in the front of the newsroom, writing and timing introductions to the stories that will appear on the nightly news. They also compose questions to be asked of correspondents at the beginning and end of their stories.

Atmosphere around the newsroom is light, jocular. Ring and Robertson have a visibly warm relationship, whether it’s discussing stories or mutual plans to play golf or double-date for dinner. There is a good deal of joking and laughter around these two and producer John Hoffman (Kelly is continuously fixing him up with blind dates) as the afternoon wears on and the big broadcast draws nearer.

“Frank has become someone I respect enormously. But he is also someone I can tell anything to,” says Ring. “He’s a great friend.”

On the set, anything can happen. A minute to air, Ring holds up a hand mirror and touches up her hair. Once the theme music rolls, the anchors put on their game faces and begin. Cameramen wad up pieces of paper and shoot baskets at a trash can. While Roy Leep does the weather, Kelly and Frank talk to Andy. The guys in the soundproof production studio send Kelly kisses over her earphone.

Ring and Robertson never roll their eyes over some insipid, off-the-cuff remark one or the other might make, unlike John Wilson does in reaction to Sheryl Browne at Ch. 10 or Gayle Sierens does in deflecting Bob Hite at Ch. 8.

Well, almost never.

One day Kelly spent the afternoon showing someone’s 10-year-old child around the newsroom. Then WTVT President Clarence McKee brought in a group from the United Way to say hello. “My attention was everywhere but on the copy. I didn’t have time to look it over,” she says. During the 5 o’clock news, anchors Kathy Fountain and Denise White turned to Frank and Kelly in the newsroom to ask what stories were coming up at 6. That’s when it happened.

“I said ‘orgasm’ over the air instead of organism,” recalls Ring, blushing. “It was the most horrifying moment of my life. It was awful. I thought I was going to faint. Luckily, Frank didn’t laugh. I threw it back to Kathy and she didn’t laugh. When we went to commercial, the place erupted.

“Don’t ask me how I came up with orgasm,” she says. “I still have nightmares about that day. It made every blooper reel imaginable.”

o o o

It isn’t easy to maintain eye contact with Kelly Ring. As beautiful as those steely blue eyes are, a man can’t help but take in all of her. She dresses like a vibrant young woman, unafraid of high heels, short skirts, plunging necklines. There’s no forgetting this 30-year-old is at the height of her powers and appeal.

“Great eyes,” says her friend Rick Nafe, who is director of Tampa Stadium. “You could get lost in those eyes.”

“She’s a doll,” says Fred Doremus, another pal. “She’s got that million-dollar smile.”

Over grilled chicken sandwiches at Jimmy Mac’s in Tampa, it’s apparent to everyone but Kelly what a sensation she creates by simply entering the dining room. She’s oblivious to the stares — from men and women alike — but people can’t seem to contain their impulse to study and admire her.

“I’m pretty conservative,” she says, although Kelly Ring in a burlap sack might be considered sexy to some. “I’m still young. I can still dress young. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with dressing the way you want. But I always dress like a lady. I’m representing the station wherever I go. I always want to give a good image. I’m never going to go out looking sloppy.”

o o o

Kelly Ring’s mother dated Elvis for a year.

No, it’s not some fantastic National Enquirer headline, it’s the truth.

The former Bonnie Brown is a country singer whose early career development with her siblings in The Browns paralleled Presley’s. They met as unknowns in 1955 when both were on the Louisiana Hayride in Shrevesport, at the threshold of their careers. The pair — Bonnie was 16, Elvis, 19 — were steadies for an entire year.

“Elvis was a real sweet person,” says Bonnie. “But he liked to eat peanut butter and plain tomato sandwiches. That was weird to me.”

By the time they broke up, The Browns signed with RCA Victor for the first of 13 record albums. They garnered three gold records and three Grammy nominations. In fact, they were nominated for best performance on a religious album in 1958 and lost out — to Elvis.

Bonnie Brown met Dr. Gene Ring not long after her affair with Elvis. They settled in tiny Dardanelle, Arkansas — pop. 4,000 — a village tucked in the side of the Ozark Mountains, where John Wayne later filmed “True Grit” and Dr. Ring set up a general practice. Bonnie gave up full-time singing and touring to raise Kelly and her sister Robin.

Kelly was apparently more impressed by her daddy’s medical office as a child than with her mother’s famous country music friends.

“I love to tell this story,” says Mrs. Ring. “In a doctor’s clinic, you always have pictures of the human body. That’s how Kelly found out there was a difference between males and females. One day I found she was taking her little friends through the back door of the clinic and charging admission to show them pictures of the male body.”

Broadcast News (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Broadcast News (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray] starring William Hurt and Albert Brooks. Order your copy today by clicking on the DVD above!
Mrs. Ring remembers her eldest daughter as very inquisitive. “She was always asking questions. I should have known she was going to be a reporter. She had to know about everything.”

If Kelly is considered a beauty today, she and her mother agree it wasn’t always that way. She was a tomboy for years, envying the boys and their toy guns and boots, playing catcher on a softball team.

Kelly stood out in high school. Editor of the yearbook. Majorette. (“I’d never be a cheerleader. I couldn’t jump up and down like that.”) Voted most likely to succeed. Class president. Homecoming queen.

“I could have stayed in my hometown and lived happily ever after,” she says. “But I knew it would never happen. I had all these aspirations. By the tenth grade I knew I wanted to be a reporter and I wouldn’t let anything mess it up. I was on a mission, if you want to call it that.”

o o o

Dante Palmieri is the make-up wizard of Channel 13. He tends to all the station’s stars — Ring, Robertson, Kathy Fountain, Denise White, Alan Wendt and Leslie Spencer.

“It’s kind of a luxury,” says Ring, who needs Palmieri’s guidance. “I’d never been told how to wear make-up. My mother used to say to me, ‘You need to go to a department store and get help with your make-up.’ But it was not something I had high on my priority list.”

A former make-up director at Lincoln Center, Palmieri retired to the Tampa Bay area a few years ago. While watching Ch. 13 one night, he became so upset with the anchors’ poor use of make-up he called the station and offered his services. “The shading of their faces was so bad,” he says. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Everybody looked washed-out.

“When they introduced me to Kelly Ring,” says Palmieri, “I said, ‘Geez, if they’re all like this, it’s easy.’ The only other person as beautiful I have had to work with was Brooke Shields.”

“I don’t think I’m in her league,” says Ring, more than a little embarrassed.

Palmieri ignores her.

“This girl has a sensational face,” he insists. “And you know what’s even better? Her heart. She’s got a true heart.”

o o o

Visiting local schools to read aloud or give motivational speeches is almost a weekly part of Ring’s life. Even the youngest students recognize her from TV and pay rapt attention.

Last winter, Ring received a most unusual call from a teacher at Sandy Lane Elementary School in Clearwater. Her own fifth grade teacher from Dardanelle, Ak., Jane Dukes, was now a teacher in Clearwater. Would Kelly come speak to her school? Of course.

Walking down the hall of Sandy Lane with principal Frank Garcia, Ring is the object of much affection and many a startled gaze from students and teachers alike. One little boy, in fact, steps in front of her, points, and says to his friend, “That’s Sheryl Browne!”

Ring laughs. Men! Boys! They can’t tell one blonde TV anchor from another.

During two assemblies, Principal Frank Garcia carefully recites the connection between Ring and Dukes, adding that Kelly’s father delivered Dukes’ first son back in Dardenelle. This elicits a chorus of “oohs” and “ahhs.”

When it is her turn to speak, Ring steps down from the stage and into the crush of schoolchildren sitting cross-legged on the floor. “When I was your age,” she tells them, “I started writing in school. I loved writing stories. I was terrible in math, but I loved English. One teacher told me I was a very good writer. And she encouraged me. She made me feel I could do anything I wanted to in the world. My goal was to be a reporter.”

The kids hang on her every word.

“If you want to explore the ocean, you must have the courage to lose sight of the shore,” Ring says. “You know what I think that means? When you have dreams, you have to put your mind to what you want to do and just go for it. Just do it.”

A cynic would say it all comes together there: the blonde TV anchor quoting the tag line from a TV commercial. And as the videogenic personality finishes, the kids burst not into applause but a rhythmic “whoo, whoo, whoo” — mimicking the audiences on Arsenio Hall’s late night talk show.

After the assembly, kids line up shyly to shake Ring’s hand. She smiles and says “Hello” to each one. Many of the little girls, instead of shaking her hand, encircle Ring’s waist with their little arms in an emotional hug.

Diane Sawyer would be envious.

o o o

“Hey, Kelly!” somebody says, “How about giving Ernie Lee a hug before he goes?”

It is the countrified gentlemen and early morning television host’s last day at Channel 13 after 33 years on the “Breakfast Beat.” The staff party is wrapping up and Ring walks over to pay her respects to her former partner on the early show.

“Are you a-courtin’?” Lee asks.

Ring laughs, not sure if the old guy is making a pass or just curious.

“I have a very good friend,” she says. “His name is Tom.”

Tom Zucco, that is, a features writer at the St. Petersburg Times. The pair met a few years ago, during the videotaping of the “Join the Team” music video for baseball season tickets, and have become inseparable. At the time, Ring was seeing WYNF morning man Ron Diaz, a buddy of Zucco’s.

“That’s when the sparks started to fly,” according to Diaz, who says he’s still friends with both Ring and Zucco.

“Zucco’s put a lot of bounce in her step. She really seems happy,” says Fred Doremus, former Tampa Bay Bucs marketing director and current director of administration for the Orlando Thunder.

Ma and Pa Ring probably hope Zucco is the one. All of Kelly’s peers back home in Dardanelle are married and making babies. Not Kelly. “I have two daughters and every time they call home, I say ‘tick-tock, tick-tock,'” admits Mrs. Ring.

“Every time I go home, they bring it up,” Kelly confirms. “And that’s putting it lightly.”

o o o

“I am a reporter … I am a reporter … I am a … ”

When Bob Franklin came to Ch. 13, Kelly Ring was a weekend anchor and weekday reporter. He pushed her into the morning slot and then the 5 o’clock position. And when Kelly Craig took a job in Miami, he guided her into the 6 and 11 o’clock shows.

Franklin risked a lot on Ring but never looked back.

“She’s not only an excellent anchor and an attractive person, she’s a remarkable reporter,” says Franklin. “We require our anchors to write and report — to be journalists. We have no readers here. I daresay anchoring is something we encouraged her to do but it was not paramount in her mind. Kelly, first and foremost, is a reporter. Who happens to be gorgeous.”

The bottom line has been improved by Ring’s anchor presence. Ratings are up since she filled the co-anchor’s job opposite Frank Robertson. The public seems to like the new team; “Eyewitness News” has risen from second in the market to first.

All that’s well and good for Ring. She’s popular, instantly recognizable wherever she goes and drives a nice car. But it all means nothing if she loses the ability to get out in the field once in a while and put in an honest day’s work as a reporter.

“I came to 13 as a reporter. I had no desire to be an anchor,” reiterates Ring. “I’m still not totally confident with it. The best days I have are when I go out and do stories and then come in and anchor the news. I went to a very strict journalism school, the University of Missouri. My professor said, ‘Don’t be an anchor until you’re the best reporter you can be. Don’t let the idea of stardom or being on TV every night get to you. You’re here to be a journalist.’

“I think most people could care less who I am,” she says. “If they have a good story that needs to be told, I’m just another reporter. That’s the way I want it to be.”

Things You Didn’t Realize
You Wanted to Know About Kelly Ring

* She has an autographed picture of the anchor of the CBS Evening News on her desk. It reads: “Kelly, Courage — Dan Rather.”

* She has a kitten named “Peg Bundy.”

* She can’t cook.

* She calls everyone “honey.” Another favorite expression: “Oh, QUIT it!”

* Her favorite foods are cornbread, navy beans and caramel custard.

* She runs 5 to 6 miles per daily and can run a 10-minute mile.

* She loves to waterski.

* She attended Louisiana State University for two years but graduated from the University of Missouri.

* Her best friend is Tampa attorney Kim Merlin.

* She loves to dress up for Guavaween, Ybor City’s bizarre annual Halloween party. Last year she wore a black abaya and went as one of Saddam Hussein’s wives. Her date, Tom Zucco, was a flasher. One year she went disguised as Dolly Parton.

* Her bedroom back home in Dardanelle is lavender. It’s still full of her dolls, stuffed animals, books and awards because her mother hopes to show it off to grandchildren one day (if Kelly ever takes the hint).

* Roy, Frances and Scud Leep live upstairs from Kelly.

Her Friends Speak Out

“She’s real down-to-earth, warm, kind. There’s nothing phony about her. She’s even nicer in person than she is on television. … Other than the fact that she ripped out my heart and handed it to me while it was still beating, she’s a great girl.” — Ron Diaz, WYNF 95 FM morning disk jockey and former boyfriend

“We loved her, damn it. It crushed us when she and Ronnie broke up. But I could understand her reasons. She was a rose between two thorns.” — Ron Bennington, Diaz’s partner at WYNF

“The greatest difference between Kelly and her mom is her mom sings like an angel and Kelly can’t sing to save her life.” — Philip Metlin, former WTVT executive news producer

“Last year when there was a baseball strike and spring training was shortened, Kelly got confused about how many games there were in a season vs. during spring training. She wanted to know how they were going to get 162 games into two weeks.” — Frank Robertson, co-anchor of Ch. 13’s “Eyewitness News”

“We met in ’85 at Tampa Stadium a few days before Rod Stewart gave the stadium’s first outdoor concert in years. She interviewed me for three hours that day. I was amazed at how in-depth her questions were. And how pissed off she was when she learned I wasn’t Rod Stewart. I knew she was from Arkansas — I knew I could fool her for a little while — but not three hours’ worth.” — Rick Nafe, director of Tampa Stadium

“She was ‘Miss Yell County’ in high school, but she won’t admit it.” — Fred Doremus, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers marketing director

“When she first started to work at 13, she found out I’m one of the few people in the civilized world who knows the words to the ‘Green Acres’ theme. When we’d be in the car, going to cover a story, she used to love to hear me sing ‘Green Acres’ while she clapped along.” — Brad Wasson, former Ch. 13 cameraman

“We were at the Fountainebleu Hotel in Miami Beach the night ‘The Tarnished Years’ won three Emmys. When they announced we won the first Emmy, she let out a squeal of sheer delight. She had a grin on her face that could light up a room.” — Wasson, again

“We were going to the Super Bowl in Tampa and a soldier told her how much he appreciated the story she did on Saudi Arabia. That’s when those big ol’ blue eyes lit up. She appreciates when someone compliments her on a story. Not on how pretty she is.” — Bonnie Ring, Kelly’s mom

Watchin’ Kelly

For a celebrity roast of Kelly Ring sponsored by The Centre for Women in Hyde Park last October, Tampa Tribune reporter and cabaret performer Paul Wilborn wrote a song he calls “Watchin’ Kelly.” It’s sung to the tune of “Makin’ Whoopee.”

I’ve got something, I must confess.
I’ve got to get this off my chest.
I’m a banker, in love with an anchor.
Her name is Kelly.

Car wrecks and murders, give me the blues.
Still I am glued to the evening news.
Six and eleven, I’m in heaven.
I’m watchin’ Kelly.

(Bridge)
Gayle Sierens used to drive me wild.
But lately she’s become, well, motherly.
And that other Kelly, oh that little kewpie doll,
she did nothing for me …

Kelly’s blond hair falls, to her shoulder pads.
Her mouth says, ‘I’m good.’
Her eyes say, ‘I’m bad.’
I’d rob my own bank, if I could just be Frank,
sittin’ next to Kelly.

(Bridge)
I have a little dream that I dream,
that I’m somehow newsworthy.
The live truck is in my driveway.
At my front porch stands Kelly.

(Spoken)
She comes inside and asks me all her questions and I do my best to give her some good sound bites. When she’s finished, she asks if I have anything to add and I say, ‘Oh, yes’ and I tell her everything. She blushes and looks to her right, as if she wants to hand this story over to Frank, but Frank’s not there. When she looks back, her eyes are flashing, like the lights of downtown when they put that twinkle filter over the lens. And Kelly begins to slide … slowly … slowly … across the couch toward me …

(Singing again)
She tells the photographer to take a hike.
She puts down her microphone and says, ‘You, I like.’
We go to heaven. Film at eleven.
Of me and Kelly …

Then I wake up. It’s all a dream.
Kelly’s up there on my TV screen.
You can’t go to bed with a talking head
whose name is Kelly …

(Spoken)
Some men worry about the girl of their dreams leaving them for another man. I worry mine will leave me for another market. Kelly, don’t go baby, you mean more to me than the news itself …


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Profile: Oba Chandler’s defense attorney Fred Zinober by Bob Andelman

Attorney Fred Zinober, By Bob Andelman
Attorney Fred Zinober

(Originally published in Pinellas County Review, September 1994)

They call it the Oba Chandler Room.

In it, more than 75,000 documents and 300 pieces of evidence are stored, helter-skelter, in thick blue binders and floor-to-ceiling metal cabinets, all relating to the murder trial which has turned the usually quiet Countryside commercial law firm of Tew, Zinober, Barnes, Zimmet & Unice inside-out and upside-down.

A man who has never seen the inside of this room, triple murder defendant Oba Chandler, is the cause of this tumult. Chandler is currently on trial in a Pinellas County courtroom, accused of the 1989 rape and murder of an Ohio dairy farmer, Joan Rogers, and her two teen-age daughters, Michelle and Christe. The women disappeared on June 1, 1989, while on vacation in Florida and were discovered three days later floating in Tampa Bay, their bodies bound and gagged, nude from the waist down.

Mug shot of Oba Chandler.
Oba Chandler mugshot, image via Wikipedia

Chandler’s attorney, Fred Zinober, 42, is responsible for packing this former office, as well as for dragging the firm into a case which consumed 2,300 billable hours in a year – even before Chandler’s four-week trial began on Sept. 12.

Unfortunately for the firm, it will never be able to bill its $200 per hour average rate for Chandler’s defense because Zinober agreed to accept a flat $100,000 from the state when he took on the case. It seemed fair at the time, but for those whose math isn’t strong, that’s now $43 an hour and dropping daily.

“I think, on balance, (taking the case) was the right decision,” says the firm’s managing partner, Joel Tew. “It wasn’t necessarily the best financial decision, however.”

The case promises to be the firm’s – and certainly Zinober’s – highest profile case ever. In the course of being interviewed for this story, the attorney’s secretary handled an inquiry from the Maury Povich Show. The case has already been the subject of reports on Unsolved Mysteries, Hard Copy and Inside Edition.

When Zinober, a veteran of four years in the Pinellas-Pasco Counties State Attorney’s office, joined Tew’s firm eight years ago, he was expected to become the commercial firm’s star litigator. And he has. But it wasn’t long before Zinober was itching to re-enter the criminal arena, this time as a defense attorney.

“I said, ‘Look, I really want to get back into this, just this one criminal case, let me have some fun.’ The partners said fine,” Zinober says.

Zinober took three risks eight years ago in defending John Burke, a man accused of first-degree murder. First of all, he and Larry Jacobs represented the man for free. Second, criminal defense was not in his firm’s mission. And third, he had spent the last four years prosecuting accused murderers, not defending them.

Naturally, he won the case. (And met his future wife, Dala Ann. She was the court reporter.)

“It was such an incredible rush,” he says. “Everybody said, ‘Wow, first case you’re defending, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime, you’ll never do it again.’ ”

After Burke, Zinober received permission from his partners to defend another man accused of murder. This time, he teamed with Paul Levine, now a judge. “And what do you know?” Zinober says. “The second guy was found not guilty.” So was his third client, Mark Hartsell, a man who shot a woman in the face in front of her husband and two children. He was declared not guilty by reason of insanity.

“I’m a trial lawyer, I’m not a criminal defense lawyer,” Zinober says. “I do this, quite frankly, more as a hobby to keep myself sharp and because I love it. I love the fight. And I love going to trial.”

Michael Hayes, an attorney in the Washington, D.C. firm of Dow, Lohnes & Albertson, recently worked alongside Zinober as co-counsel for Cox Enterprises in a civil matter.

“Fred is tenacious, intelligent, creative – a wonderful guy to work with,” Hayes says. “Trial lawyers have a perverse side to them in that they like a good fight. It would be a challenge to be on the opposite side from Fred.”

Outside of the criminal realm, Zinober has also helmed several high-profile civil cases, including a concerned citizens group supporting former St. Petersburg Police Chief Curt Curtsinger’s attempt to get his job back after being fired. Later, when Curtsinger ran for mayor and lost, Zinober unsuccessfully challenged the results of the election.

Ironically, many of the police officers he represented in trying to return Curtsinger to police chief are now detectives working to convict Oba Chandler in the Rogers triple-murder. It’s a challenge he anticipates with a certain glee.

“Cops are pretty good,” Zinober says. “They respect you if you beat them. They’re tough, and if you can beat them or be tough against them, they’re the kind of guys that when they’re in a jam, you’re the kind of guy they come lookin’ for.”

Certainly he enjoyed a better relationship with the police when they both worked the same side of the legal fence. For instance, as lead trial assistant for the state attorney’s office, he and Jim Hellickson (now working against Zinober on the Chandler case) prosecuted Richard Rhodes. He’s on death row now, convicted of strangling his girlfriend in downtown Clearwater’s old Edgewater Hotel just before the hotel was demolished and the debris removed to a local gun club. Several weeks later, Rhodes’ girlfriend was discovered, her body badly decomposed. The prosecution’s case was made on “very meticulous circumstantial evidence,” Zinober says.

“I get really fascinated by circumstantial evidence cases,” he says. “(In the Rhodes case,) we got an anthropologist from the University of Florida to reconstruct how the bones were broken. See, the cause of death was strangulation. You had a body that had decomposed for 3-1/2 weeks. The bones had totally been crushed because they brought the backhoes in to demolish the building. We reconstructed the cause of death as manual strangulation because the hyoid bone – this little bone underneath your jaw – was broken. And even though every other bone in her body was broken, the only way that one could have been broken was by manual strangulation.”

The tale of Zinober’s dissection of the Rhodes case doesn’t end there, though.

“I get into these things,” he says. “(Rhodes and his girlfriend) were last seen in a bar by the bus station. That was the last time she was seen alive. Well, I wound up dressing down one day and walking around the seedier part of town, going in and out of all the bars, seeing what things were like, reliving what these people were going through to get a sense of what really happened. Had a few beers, talked to the people. Not doing any investigating, just trying to get a sense of ‘what would it be like?’

“When you’re trying a case,” Zinober says, “what you’re trying to do is reconstruct everything to the jury. And the best way you can do that is be a part of it yourself. It’s easy to get them to picture in their mind what happened if you can picture it in your own mind.”

He put this notion into practice again for the Chandler case. When depositions needed to be taken in Orlando, Zinober stayed in the same hotel where Joan Rogers and her daughters spent their last night before driving to Tampa.

“I got a sense of, this was the last place they had been before they came to Tampa and were killed. What is it that they saw? It’s kind of like you’re living a true crime novel,” he says. “You read through all these reports – I can’t put them down. ‘Well, what happened next? What did they do next? What did they see?’ ”

When he’s not working a murder case, Zinober usually has his nose buried in true crime books. His tastes run to Vincent Bugliosi and Joe McGinness; he also enjoys John Grisham’s works of crime fiction. He and Jim Martin, Clearwater lawyer and fellow veteran of the state attorney’s office, recommend books to each other.

“Jim made a good comment. He said, ‘The true life situations are so much more interesting than fiction.’ Which is true. If anybody wrote these things and said it was fiction, you’d say, ‘This could never happen.’ But when you read the police reports, you go, ‘Gee, whiz, this really did happen.’ And it’s even weirder than somebody could write about.”

Along the lines of switching from fiction to non-fiction, Zinober says the jump from criminal prosecutor to defender wasn’t as difficult as he imagined. He credits his ease with the two years he spent in New Hampshire in private practice before joining the state attorney’s office in 1982.

“When you’re a prosecutor,” Zinober says, “you see (crime) from the victim’s perspective and the defendant is kind of an impersonal name, a file. When I left the state, I was one of these guys who said, ‘I’ll never represent a criminal.’ I said, ‘Joel, I don’t have any desire to represent any of these dirtbag criminals. Don’t worry about it.’ But criminal law is in your blood. And I kind of eased into it because of the first guy I represented, John Burke. I was totally convinced that this was the aberration. This guy was getting screwed and he needed me to protect him. I’d always been real good on protecting other people. Then the more I talked to people I felt well, what they’re saying makes sense. Maybe the way the evidence looks isn’t right. Maybe there’s a reason the evidence looks the way it looks. When you start actually meeting these people and defending them – and some of them have even done some really kind of screwy or bad things – I don’t have a problem with it at all.”

That might disappoint James T. Russell, the long-time state attorney for the Sixth Judicial Circuit, who hired Zinober as a prosecutor in 1982.

“Mr. Russell has always been like a father to me,” Zinober says. “I mean, I’ve gone my rounds with him, too; I’ve been yelled at more than once by him. Russell was just a brilliant guy. Tough, fair – he ran that office the way that office should be run. I missed my own farewell party because I was in Russell’s office till 8 o’clock talking about the Bears and the Giants. He was that type of guy.

“One time, we were prosecuting a guy by the name of Athanasio John ‘A.J.’ Maillis,” Zinober recalls. “A.J. had been probably the No. 1 confidential informant in the history of the CIA for Operation: Grouper, this big thing they had in the Bahamas. When he got out of the CIA, he wound up being one of the top cocaine traffickers in Tarpon Springs. Russell warned the federal government: Put the wraps on this guy. The intelligence on this guy was A.J. was doing a lot of coke. Russell kept saying to the feds, ‘Get this guy out of here or get him under control!’ They wouldn’t do it. So finally Jimmy said, ‘I’ve had enough of this shit.’ The sheriff’s department made a case. It was a tough case, two keys of coke. Beverly Andringa and I prosecuted the case. The CIA was not happy, the federal government was not happy. They sent some people down to see if there was something that could be done and we said no. Then somebody pretty high up in the CIA came down and we had a meeting in Russell’s office. Everybody else had this fear of the CIA. Russell just sat there. I’ll never forget him looking at the CIA people and he unleashed on them like he used to unleash on us when we screwed up. He said, ‘You people have forgotten where your responsibilities lie! You put this drug trafficker in my community and now you have the nerve to come down here and complain?’ He blew them over.”

The opportunity to defend Oba Chandler came in a phone call from the judge in the case, Susan Schaeffer, last October.

“I had heard it was this massive case,” Zinober says. “I had heard about ‘The Wall,’ the euphemistic expression for the wall of reports down at the St. Petersburg Police Department. I heard that it was an overwhelming amount of paperwork. Now, paper doesn’t scare me as much as it might a normal criminal practitioner because in commercial work, I’m used to paper. I knew it was going to be a lot of work. I don’t think I knew how much work it was going to be.”

Zinober discussed the case with the three attorneys who preceded him, public defender Ron Eide and criminal defense attorneys Tom McCoun (now a judge) and Bob Dillinger. Then he appeared once more before his partners, seeking their counsel and support.

Partner Andy Salzman said, “This is one of those cases that may come along once in your life. The question is, do you let it go by?”

Zinober, a film buff, answered by recalling Ann-Margaret, of all people, in Grumpy Old Men. “Ann-Margaret said, ‘The only things in life you regret are the risks you don’t take,’ ” Zinober says. “Which is true.”

The firm – not without its share of dissenters, admits Joel Tew – agreed to support Zinober one more time. “There was a disagreement among the partners as to whether it was something we should get involved with,” Tew says. “But everyone has since pulled together and supported Fred in this.”

Very little work had been done when Zinober finally cleared his desk and began on Chandler’s case in earnest last April. By August, he was so focused on the case, the rest of the world just slipped away.

“I’m the type of guy who will put milk in the cupboard,” he says. “I’m not allowed to drive when trials are going on, people have to drive me around. I focus around the clock. I’m thinking of this case all the time. I dream about the case. My wife is sick of me thinking about nothing but this case.”

His work habits at the height of a murder case are maddening, not just for his family but for the 14 lawyers and other employees of his firm. “He expects the people who work with him and for him to be the same way he is,” Tew says. “And he’s liable to show up at 2:30 a.m. to work. He dreams it, eats it and sleeps his practice. We just leave him alone and let him do his thing. He couldn’t change if he wanted to. That’s Zinober.”

Dala Ann Zinober, his wife, wasn’t initially thrilled with his choice of client, this time around.

“Let me put it this way: my wife understands,” Zinober says. “At first, I have to admit, she was a little bit concerned about this. She said, honestly speaking, ‘Gee, Fred, do you really want to take this case?’ But she sees how I feel about it and it gives her some pause. I’m fortunate in that she’s been through the court system. She’s a court reporter so she understands. She’s a very conservative person, the type I would not want to have on a jury if I were defending somebody.”

Death Cruise (St. Martin's True Crime Library) by Don Davis
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Zinober says his client has been “very easy” to work with. More importantly, Zinober – despite 17 witnesses who say his client confessed the murders to them, plus physical evidence – believes he has a winnable case.

“Oh, absolutely,” he says. “No question about it.”

Would he have taken it even if he wasn’t convinced it was winnable?

“I doubt it,” he says. “Quite frankly, the challenge was one of the reasons I took it in the first place. And if I didn’t feel it was a winnable case, that challenge wouldn’t have been there. There’s no question in my mind this is a winnable case. It’s not an easy case. At all. Sometimes I feel like I’m fighting the Russian army with a water gun. But I’m not afraid of that.

“I’m here to defend a guy’s life. But sometimes it seems everywhere you turn, people are looking to knock you down. You have people saying, based on what they read in the newspaper, ‘How can you defend this man?’ The press – my case is getting hammered in the press. Sometimes you just feel you’re fighting everybody.”

His partner, Joel Tew, says it’s not hard to see why Zinober feels this way.

“Based on the number of prosecutors working against him, frankly, Fred needed an O.J. Simpson team with him,” Tew says.

Instead, he has two part-time investigators and two paralegals.

“Sometimes it feels I’m fighting insurmountable odds,” Zinober says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m some ‘Man of La Mancha.’ I identify with a guy going up and fighting a windmill. It’s an awesome responsibility. You’re the one, in the end, people look to. If he winds up suffering the death penalty, you’re the one questioning yourself for the rest of your life. ‘Have I done everything? Did I make sure the guy got a fair trial?’ ”

The Profiler by Pat Brown with Bob Andelman, Mr. Media Interviews
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BAY LAWYER FILE

Name: Fredric S. Zinober

Title: Attorney; Tew, Zinober, Barnes, Zimmet & Unice

Birthplace/date: August 2, 1952, Queens, N.Y.

Spouse’s Name/Occupation: Dala Ann Zinober, court reporter

Children: Tina and Luke Chaffin, 17 (twin step-children); April Lynn Zinober, 4

Pre-Law: “My father was editor of an automotive magazine in New York for 30 years, and my mother is an elementary school teacher. My primary pre-law activity, outside of academics, was sports. I was a linebacker on my college (Middlebury College, VT) football team, and was an infielder/defenseman on the lacrosse team.”

First Law Job: Clerked for Rockville, MD, attorney Charlie Shaffer before graduating from Catholic University of America Law School in 1980

Subsequent Career: Associate, Cleveland, Waters & Bass in Concord, NH, 1980-82. Hired as assistant state attorney by Pinellas-Pasco prosecutor James T. Russell. Joined Tew, Zinober, Barnes, Zimmet & Unice in 1986.

Biggest Victory: “The not-guilty verdict by reason of insanity in the Mark Hartsell case. Prior to this, it is my understanding that it had been over a decade since a man was found not guilty by reason of insanity on a first degree murder charge at trial.”

Biggest Disappointment: “Every loss I have ever had is equally disappointing.”

Lawyers Most Admired: Albert Krieger of Miami; Bobby Lee Cook of Georgia; Terrance McCarthy, federal public defender of Chicago

Favorite Law-related Book: Blind Faith by Joe McGinness

Favorite Non-law-related Book: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fred Zinober WebsiteLinkedIn

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RIP Lance Ringhaver, Tampa Bay business and baseball leader BOOK EXCERPT

Lance Ringhaver, Ring Power, Tampa Bay Baseball Group, Stadium For Rent, by Bob Andelman
Lance Ringhaver

(Lance Ringhaver, a prominent Tampa Bay businessman and once a member of the Tampa Bay Baseball Group, died in a car accident on Tuesday, April 5, 2016. I profiled him in my 1993 book, Stadium For Rent: Tampa Bay’s Quest for Major League Baseball, and share that excerpt below. You can read more about him in this Tampa Bay Times story. Rest in peace, Lance.)

Truck dealer Lance Ringhaver once told auto dealer Frank Morsani that if the Tampa Bay Baseball Group ever had room for one more person, or if Frank Morsani ever needed another investor, please call.

In 1990, Morsani called.

“He said he had asked several people and he had an opening,” Ringhaver says. “Mark Bostick had been invited and since I knew Mark, maybe I’d join up, too.”

Ringhaver, an enthusiastic sports booster at his alma mater, the University of Florida, was a baseball fan from way back. He first tasted the game as a bat boy on his father’s company ball team and later played in the Pee Wee League. As he grew up, he loved to watch the game.

In 1961, Ringhaver and his father started Ring Power Corp. in St. Augustine, Florida. The company started as the Caterpillar engine franchise for North and Central Florida, growing to cover 44 of Florida’s 67 counties. Lance Ringhaver became president of the heavy equipment company in 1976 and later added the title of chairman of the board. He operates Ringhaver Equipment Co.’s Central Florida companies out of Tampa and his brother Randal oversees North Florida operations of Ring Power in Jacksonville. Annual sales reached $400-million in 1990.

When the potential to own a piece of a major league franchise arose, it sounded too good to be true. “I initially thought it was fairly profitable,” he says. “Reading about George Steinbrenner, the Yankees, his television contract, it was a pretty picture.”

Ringhaver and the Bostick family were friends over two generations. Ringhaver met Morsani almost as soon as the car dealer came to town. Morsani was easy to know in the community. They also shared a love of the soil and engines. Morsani’s career made him one of Tampa Bay’s leading dealers of new cars; Ringhaver was one of the state’s largest sellers of Caterpillar earth-moving vehicles.
“I liked Lance,” Morsani says. “He was a very genuine guy. No big flair—just get the job done.”

To Be Frank: Building the American Dream in Business and Life by Frank Morsani with Dave Scheiber
To Be Frank: Building the American Dream in Business and Life by Frank Morsani with Dave Scheiber. Order your copy now by clicking on the book cover above.

The deal Morsani proposed to Ringhaver and Bostick all but cut out his original gang at the TBBG. The new guys would become the majority investors in pursuing an expansion franchise, each taking a 45 percent interest. “They both felt they could handle whatever the figure was. I never got into their finances. I never saw their financial statements,” Morsani says.

“We’d both have gone to the bank,” Ringhaver says of himself and Bostick. “We didn’t have it sitting around. There’s no doubt we’d be pretty well going into hock individually; I’d be going to my pocket, not my company’s.”

The remaining 10 percent would be Morsani’s (less a fraction of the action for the TBBG) as compensation for the time and $2-million he already invested. The remaining $65-million of the expansion fee would be raised by SunBank of Tampa Bay through a limited partnership.

“We always felt that we had to expand the ownership group,” Morsani says.

Morsani says he warned his new partners about the rocky state of his personal finances and that one of his banks might call in a loan. They knew he was in trouble and structured their partnership so that Morsani bore no responsibility for a cash investment. Morsani invited them to the table, knew his way around and possessed a decade of experience with baseball. He was worth a 10 percent stake if the partnership succeeded. Further, Ringhaver and Bostick were prepared to assume the Tampa Bay Baseball Group’s debt if they were awarded a team, greatly reducing the pressure on Morsani.

What mattered most to Ringhaver as an investor was staying in the background. Much as he loved the game, he already ran a demanding company, one that took virtually all of his time and energy, day in and day out. “I never wanted to be a major part of the team but Frank wanted to keep it small. And it was easier to make decisions without a big committee,” Ringhaver says.

The new Morsani group met two or three times a month, sometimes more. Ringhaver’s primary responsibility was to work with Bostick to develop a line of credit for the partnership. Beyond that, Bostick and Morsani handled all the baseball-related responsibilities because they had all the contacts.

Stadium For Rent: Tampa Bay's Quest for Major League Baseball, Second Edition, by Bob Andelman
Stadium For Rent: Tampa Bay’s Quest for Major League Baseball, Second Edition, by Bob Andelman. Order your copy today by clicking on the book cover above.

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Thomas Huggins. He knows people. People you should know. PROFILE

Thomas Huggins, founder, Ariel Business Group, Tampa, by Bob Andelman
Thomas Huggins, founder of Tampa-based Ariel Business Group, featured on the cover of the Maddux Business Report. Story by Bob Andelman.

By BOB ANDELMAN

Written September 17, 2005

Maddux Business Report

Thomas Huggins knows people.

Construction people, engineers, environmental consultants, accountants, attorneys and all kinds of professional, small business people.

He’s made an entire business of knowing people, knowing people who know people, and knowing what some people are looking for in other people.
When governmental agencies and big businesses around the Tampa Bay area need to get a job done by a small, minority or disadvantaged business they often turn to Huggins’ 10-year-old Tampa consulting company, Ariel Business Group.

That’s what Skanska USA Building did.

When Skanska was preparing to bid on the design and construction of Tampa International Airport’s new outbound baggage handling system and security enhancements project in 2002, the general contractor knew that the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority required that a percentage of work on the system would be done by disadvantaged business enterprises – DBEs, in its bureaucratic lingo. (Other agencies and private companies may call them SBEs, for small business enterprises.)

“We understand that there’s more to dealing with a public entity than just building,” says Skanska Senior Vice President Jim Clemens. “You can’t follow a scorched earth policy in the local market. And there is a responsibility we have to support and understand the needs of the community. The taxpayers of this region have funded these projects. The taxpayer base is a reflection of those people in the community and therein lays the responsibility for an open-minded construction manager to ensure the work we do responds to the needs of the community. The original goal of the airport was 15 percent for this project. And we said, ‘We understand what you want to achieve.’ And we committed to a 20 percent goal right out of the chute. And we even beat that.”

Large government agencies maintain a list of certified DBEs in their area. The City of Tampa, for example, has a list of minority or disadvantaged businesses, as does the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. The challenge for many general contractors who may not be based locally is that they are provided with a quantitative list of names and phone numbers but no qualitative information about each outfit’s capacity. Ariel Business Group – and similar consultants – adds value by providing missing background on firms they have worked with and their capabilities for tackling a particular task. Beyond that, they have often worked with additional firms that may not be on an agency’s list but that can perform a needed service.

“The outbound baggage project was a highly visible project, one that a number of firms were going after,” Huggins says. “I had a meeting with Frank Fralick, who was then the president of Skanska locally (and is now executive vice president of Manhattan Construction Company in Tampa). We talked about his desire and interest in pursuing this project and having a strong diversity of firms. He recognized the commitment of the Aviation Authority and he made a commitment to having a diverse team on this project.”

Huggins says Fralick made a decision to “do it the right way.

“There are companies that really believe they can get around the SBE requirement by filling out some paperwork and not achieving the intent of the program, which is why it was installed in the first place, to create opportunities where opportunities didn’t previously exist. Frank took the higher road.”

Thomas Huggins, Ariel Business Group, Tampa, by Bob Andelman
Thomas Huggins, founder of Tampa-based Ariel Business Group

When Skanska won the baggage contract in mid-2002, Huggins and Ariel were immediately added to its team for the purpose of assigning $26 million (of the $130 million total budget) in subcontracting work. Individual contracts over the next three years ranged from $30,000 to $1 million. The baggage system was a design-build project that encompassed design, installation and construction.

“It wasn’t just bricks and mortar, either,” Clemens says. “It was high tech, very demanding. Our work couldn’t negatively impact aviation at Tampa International. It takes a special contractor. It’s like trying to build a new operating room at a hospital while there is an operation going on next door.”
What’s interesting is that Skanska USA Building has an office and presence in Tampa, unlike some contractors that may bid a project here but be based elsewhere.

“Do we turn to Ariel and a Thomas Huggins because we don’t know where to turn without them? No,” Clemens says. “We turn to them because they provide instant credibility in their community. They provide, in a real-time manner, which subs are capable – and which are not. Which are over capacitized and which are not. They bring a lot more to the table than a list of names. They understand the market and the firms available. Skanska knew of all these subcontractors before. Could we have done it without Thomas? Probably. But it would have made the job more difficult. He provides a service not unlike your insurance agent or attorney. He brings an expertise in an aspect of the market that we can’t provide on a full-time basis.”

Ariel started the process with a serious of informational meetings that introduced almost 40 minority and disadvantaged small business to Skanska and the dimensions of the project. Many had not worked for the airport or Skanska before. Clemens went through the project and provided background on Skanska and the scope and magnitude of the system. He also explained how, as a team, Skanska and Ariel intended to meet and exceed the Aviation Authority’s participation guidelines. (Not all the DBE firms went through this process but many did.)

Ariel had a continuing responsibility to the project from pre-start until closeout.

“We try to be proactive as opposed to reactive,” Huggins says. “We recognize the challenge of the larger firms. They inherently have budget issues and scheduling conflicts. We’re real cognizant of those issues. As we work with the disadvantaged companies, we want to be sure the DBE firms have the capacity to do their portion of the work. Being proactive, we want to ensure that we’ve covered the areas that potentially may be of concern: Can the company perform? Is there a need for performance bonding? Payment assistance? Our goal is to get the participating firms to look at (using DBE companies) as a process, not a project. They should be incorporated in the process of doing business.

“We not only are matching firms with capability,” he continues, “but we also are there to anticipate any conflicts, mediate any issues and alleviate problems. The goal is, get the project done, so everybody makes money and everybody walks away happy. This is business driven. The contractors are in it to make money. The subs are in it to make money. It’s only good in the end if everybody is happy. And that’s difficult to achieve in the construction business.”

Construction, as anyone who has ever hired a contractor for something as simple as a home renovation or as complicated as building an office tower, is a tough business. An awfully tough business.

“It’s a dog-eat-dog business,” says Huggins. “My passion for the subcontractors trying to enter it is you can be a great tradesman but you have to understand the business – the administration, the financial, the management aspect. All those components are critical in escalating your business. They’re critical to your overall success.”

The challenge for Huggins and his DBE network is in constantly upgrading not just their trade skills but also their industry savvy in ways that make them indispensable beyond earning set-aside project budgets.

“The majority of the minority subcontractor firms that worked on the airport project liked working for the contractor because of the relationships that developed,” Huggins says. “They were not easy contractors but they were fair; the contractors I talked to felt that. Skanska demanded performance; they demanded the best out of the subs. The subs respected them not only for being demanding but also being fair and respecting them.”

Clemens says the feeling was truly mutual.

“We got enthusiastic subcontractors that wanted to work, wanted to learn,” he says. “Because of that we achieved an even greater percentage than the goals for using disadvantaged businesses. We grew as a family on that project. All the ethnic and race divides withered away. Thomas and his leadership allowed that to occur.”

Skanska subsequently used some of the subs that Huggins introduced it to on other public – and private – projects in Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami-Dade.

The bottom line, of course, is the impact the DBEs have on the general contractor’s ability to profit from a job. But Clemens insists the equation isn’t that simple.

“Beyond the bottom line, we are helping to grow and cultivate in the Tampa Bay area a group of new and rising stars in the construction field,” he says. “We may not see immediate effects in economic aspects, but the market and community sees the creation of jobs and the stability of the competitive marketplace being improved. It isn’t all ‘Great Society’ stuff. It creates more qualified subcontractors, not just more qualified disadvantaged minority subs. These are newly confident people available to the airport five years out. The next group of subs will be stronger and better positioned as a result of these programs.

“My mission statement is to satisfy my customer,” Clemens continues. “My client is the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. Their interest is that the tax dollars that they use to fund projects provides a benefit that transcends back to the community at some level. That is my job. Yes, we’re in business and business is capitalistic and there is a profit motive involved. But at the end of the day, the way I’m graded is on the level of client satisfaction that I bring. And I need to meet, at the most basic aspects, the goals my customer establishes for disadvantaged participation. I have it in a contract. For me to be profitable and not meet those goals, they won’t have me back.”

So what did the companies Huggins recommended do?

“A little bit of everything,” according to Clemens. “We had contractors that installed the baggage conveyor systems. We had electricians, welders, plumbers, excavators and underground utility providers. It wasn’t a bunch of guys who pushed brooms and threw out the garbage.”

And not only was the baggage system completed on time in April 2005 and work well, it won a major industry award. The National Construction Management Association of America gave Skanska its 2005 Project Achievement Award in the category of “Public Project with a Construction Value Greater than $100 million.”

“It’s a fantastic honor,” Clemens says.

• • •

Thomas Huggins gets high marks from everyone with whom the Maddux Business Report spoke. Huggins, 45, is a past-chairman of the Tampa Urban League and current chairman of the Hillsborough Community College Board of Directors, having been appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999.

He truly is a people person.

“He’s just a real easygoing guy,” says Mary Hall, legal affairs director for the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority, another Ariel client. “And he’s got a good team. In all this time, I’ve never seen him not have a suggestion or a solution. He’s a good team player.”

That view is echoed by Skanska’s Jim Clemens.

“Our relationship has grown to be very friendly,” Clemens says. “We went from working associates to friends. He’s a great guy, hard working, whose career reflects his personality and work ethic, which is refreshing in the construction business. He has a very high threshold for dealing with difficult situations.”

But what is Huggins actually like as a man?

He’s been married for almost 20 years to his wife, Belinda, with whom he has two sons and two daughters. The oldest son plays football at The Citadel.

“Thomas is a pretty good guy,” says his friend of six years, Rea Remedial Solutions, Inc. President Kevin Simmons. “When I started my business – I used to work for Westinghouse and decided to open my own environmental firm – I met Thomas. Our firm was getting qualified to work for DOT through its bonding program and Thomas was running that program through Florida A&M University. I took the certification course through Ariel in St. Petersburg and Thomas taught the class. After I got certified by DOT, I came back and taught some classes for him. He gave me the old pitch about giving back. Thomas is good about being sure that those people who get help getting a leg up help the next guy.”

Simmons, who is African-American and the majority owner of his Valrico-based environment construction and engineering and assessment firm, has since worked on two projects referred by Ariel at Tampa International Airport, one for Skanska and one for Beck. He is currently working on another Ariel arranged assignment, the Selmon Crosstown Expressway expansion.

“Thomas has been a real proponent for minority business,” according to Simmons. “He’s done a real service in terms of helping small and disadvantaged businesses establish themselves through the cities, counties and state. He has a heartfelt view of helping and it comes out. He has made some introductions for us. By being the liaison for Beck and Skanska, it’s his job to understand the capabilities of those businesses. Once he knew what we could do and what they need, he was instrumental in getting us that introduction. “

Okay, okay, he’s a great humanitarian. But what’s he like?

“To be honest with you, Thomas is kind of a dry guy,” says Simmons. “There’s no wild side, no wild story to be related. He’s very into politics; he’s an African-American Republican. And he’s proud of being able to say it. A lot of African-American Republicans keep that to themselves.”

• • •

Like a lot of successful businesspeople in the bay area, Thomas Huggins relocated to Tampa from somewhere else; in his case, it was Charleston.
Huggins, who is originally from Green Cove Springs, Florida, received a degree in business and finance from the College of Charleston, SC, where he also played basketball.

Arriving here, he spent his first days working in the payroll accounting department of Hardaway Construction during its construction of the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Nights he worked for the St. Petersburg Times in it printing plant, folding and processing newspapers.

In 1983, Huggins was hired by Community Federal Savings & Loan, the only African-American, multicultural bank in the city at the time. From there, he worked for consulting firms such as Boone, Young & Associates and Laventhol & Horwath doing small business consulting. At each firm he worked with the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“During that time, we worked a lot with small businesses, particularly construction companies, on major projects in the area,” Huggins says. “We worked on diversity issues, primarily business related, and minority business development programs. We were versed in the procurement and contracting arena and some of the challenges minority businesses were facing at the time.”

Huggins’ responsibilities included assisting small businesses with financing, developing business plans, and obtaining financing through the Small Business Administration and local banks. “We were identifying contracting opportunities for small businesses with the government and private sector. We educated them on the procurement systems and entering the construction arena. At the time, I managed a five-person staff that provided those services,” he says.

Fees at both consulting firms paid by small business clients were offset by the Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency. The idea was giving small, disadvantaged and minority businesses a better opportunity to compete for both jobs and access. “DOC’s goal was to have an avenue where minority business would receive technical assistance to promote business development,” Huggins says. “They wanted them to get the same assistance offered to mainstream firms through CPA firms. That is otherwise prohibitive to small business, so the DOC contracted with firms to provide that assistance at a subsidized rate. So instead of $200 an hour, the firms that came in might pay $100 or $75 an hour.”

As it turned out, the DOC indirectly subsidized Thomas Huggins’ future as well.

“I gained a tremendous amount of experience,” he says.

No surprise then that when Boone closed its Tampa office in 1996, Huggins went out on his own and hung a shingle as the head of Ariel Business Group.

“I felt that there was a niche, a void, in the area as it relates to the emerging business market,” he says. “Businesses that are under $2 million in revenue needed managerial and organizational assistance, all the way down to individuals that were micro-businesses in needed of assistance in starting a business.

“And,” he says, laughing, “I needed a job.”

Huggins felt it was the right track for him; when Boone shut down, he didn’t apply for any other jobs with existing firms. “This was the direction that I was led to go,” he says. “Being a spiritual man, this is where my prayer was. I asked for direction and guidance from God and this was the direction that he led me.”

Seems logical. But when you say you’re a “consultant,” there are a lot of consultants that do a lot of things. To provide some credibility early on,

Huggins’ goal was not just be another consultant working from home, going from one client to another.

“I wanted to develop a business,” he says.
In the early days, Ariel consisted of Huggins and a part-time administrative support person. Today, he still runs a lean operation, helped by a vast computer database and a staff of five, including Melanie Mitchell, who was the project manager on the airport and expressway jobs.

“Relationships are important,” Huggins says. “The real issue for us is understanding the needs of the client, understanding the individual finance-making industry and what their likes and dislikes.”

Over time, Huggins broke Ariel up into three service areas:

• Management, advisory and program administration services;

• Corporate and diversity training to senior level management and governmental agencies – “We’ve not only worked for government agencies,” Huggins says, “but they’ve asked for our help on the public policy side to develop minority policies”;

• Work with individual firms to do contract compliance and small business outreach on construction related projects.

“On the emerging business side,” Huggins says, “we still work with individual small businesses with revenues below $1 million that seek assistance in procurement and understanding the government bureaucracy, as well as individuals seeking financing.”

Ariel’s annual revenues are in the “mid six figures” according to Huggins. He bills clients by the hour for services rendered, using the same time-tested approach as lawyers and accountants. The amount is not, he emphasizes, based on the DBE budget for a project. And Ariel does not charge the SBE firms it introduces to its clients. “That’s considered double-dipping and I wouldn’t do that,” Huggins says.

His goal, he says, is to see his small business clients outgrow him.

• • •

The Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority – the government agency that operates the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway and the Veterans Expressway – hired Ariel Business Group as its official small business enterprise authority for construction of the new $400 million expansion of the existing Selmon Expressway. It was one of several consulting firms that responded to an RFP for an SBE consultant.

“We were centered on getting as much of the construction work distributed to small businesses as possible,” explains the Authority’s legal affairs director Mary Hall. “We’re a small agency. We couldn’t by any stretch license or register or maintain an independent contractor list the way city or county do. Our board decided that if a company is on the list on any governmental agency in a seven-county area they could be on our database. Ariel was hired to try to get the word out that these jobs are available through the authority and they’ve been pretty successful.”

As it did with the airport project, Ariel participates in weekly expressway construction meetings with the major contractors to keep abreast of performance and evolving needs.

“The firms say, ‘Over the next two weeks we’re working on whatever.’ Then Ariel goes back to their database and tells companies what is coming up this week,” Hall says. “The small companies wouldn’t have known about us because we’re not typically in the construction business. They can’t bid these huge jobs; they have to be subs.”

Ariel impresses its clients on both ends by staying involved in the process.

“Sometimes they come up with issues we don’t hear about, such as delays in payment,” Hall says. “They act as the SBE’s representative and they get through some sticky issues that always resolve satisfactorily. One time, for example, there was a delay in payment to a sub. That’s a hardship. Once the general contractor confirmed the work was satisfactory, we expedited payment to the sub based on Ariel’s intervention. They work closely with our project accountant. That’s how they track the SBE participation. We have a reporting system that involves everyone.”

The Expressway Authority requires any contractor with which it does business to follow its SBE policy. “Whenever they have any work effort, they’re encouraged to look for SBE firms. Our construction policy requires that the contractor have a similar policy to ours; most of them already do,” Hall says. “We don’t just say it and let it sit on the shelf. We require they participate.”

• • •

There’s something different about Thomas Huggins from other small business enterprise consultants that Jonathan Graham has worked with before.

“He’s professional,” says the Graham, of Horus Construction Services in St. Petersburg. “I’ve dealt with Thomas for about four years. We had an opportunity through him with the Hillsborough County school district. We also worked with him on a Palm Beach contract.”

The mark of an effective SBE consultant is that the agency or company that hires him or her has the power to enforce participation.

“If they’re just there as a show – ‘We, as a corporation, do outreach but the construction managers do what they want,’ there’s no value,” Graham says. “But if they want to take the advice of the consultant, such as Thomas, it’s a good thing. But we’ve found people want to work with people they know. Big companies know majority subcontractors. They don’t know minority contractors. People put up a front, ‘We’d like to work with minority contractors’ but they don’t know them and don’t take chance to get to know them.”

Kevin Simmons says that when it comes to opening his network, recognizing or seizing opportunity, Thomas Huggins doesn’t see people of color, sex or ethnicity, just opportunity.

“He’s been a real incubator for getting women-owned or (non-disadvantaged) small businesses started. He’ll say, ‘Here’s a good accountant.’ Or they say. ‘Thomas Huggins from Ariel said to see you.’ Or Thomas will call in advance and say, ‘This guy is coming to see you; he needs help.’ It’s a nice little network.

Ariel Business Group Website

(This version of the story may be somewhat different than the published version.)

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