Ken Welch: Sheriff not at fault for drowning deaths of 3 teen girls

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch took a field trip Friday to the cemetery pond where three teenage girls drowned in a stolen car.

The drowning happened about 3:50 a.m. March 31. The girls, who were being followed by Pinellas sheriff’s deputies, turned into Royal Palm North Cemetery, 2600 Gandy Blvd. and drove into a pond.

Deputies said they were unable to reach the car to get the teens out. But some community activists have charged deputies never made an effort and allowed them to die because they were black and in a stolen car.

The accusations that Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and his deputies were guilty of murdering the three teens prompted Welch’s visit to the scene. The uproar, he said, was gaining momentum. And, Welch said he was also concerned about the girls’ families.

“It weighed on my mind for a number of things,” Welch said Saturday. “I decided just to go out and take a look for myself.”

Welch’s conclusion: There was no way deputies could have gotten through the muck to get to the car without specialized equipment. The deputies and Gualtieri are not at fault, he said.

“It is sludge,” he said of the site. From the first step, Welch said, he saw the impossibility of getting to the car without special equipment, particularly in the dark.

Welch posted a video and still photographs on his Facebook page:

He also posted this statement:

“I am very sorry for the loss of Dominique Battle, Ashaunti Butler and LaNiya Miller and pray for their families. Last year, we lost three of my family members — India, Ty and Lamour. No matter how good or imperfect any of us are (or think we are), the sudden and violent loss of a young family member is traumatic for loved ones. We should remember that in our dialogue, and respect the grieving process that the families are going through.

“That being said, making positive change in our community must be based on truth and facts. We will have many more conversations and actions to address this and other issues in our community. But given the escalating rhetoric on this incident and the sheriff’s deputies’ response that night, I thought that I would visit the accident site and see for myself if the water was accessible. In my view, it is not. The video below shows me sinking into the muck on my first step. I am open to any other information or evidence, but unsupported rhetoric and accusations will not move us forward, nor heal the destructive trends that are at work in our community. The only way to move forward is together, and on a foundation of truth and justice — for all.”

On Saturday, Welch added, “I am very sorry for the families of the three young ladies. No one deserves to die that way.”

He also referred to the escalating number of car thefts in the county, saying that’s a problem the community must come together to solve. Law enforcement, he said, does not have the tools to handle the thefts alone.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman endorses Ben Diamond for state House

The drumbeat of Democratic endorsements for Ben Diamond‘s state House campaign continued Saturday with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman announcing his support of the first-time candidate.

“Ben Diamond’s candidacy for the Florida House is great news for St. Petersburg, District 68, and all of Florida,” Kriseman said. “His love of people and knowledge of the policymaking process will make him a popular and effective legislator on day one. I am proud to endorse my friend Ben Diamond.”

Kriseman has seen first-hand Diamond at work. The St. Petersburg attorney and former general counsel to CFO Alex Sink served on Kriseman’s transition team and serves on the board of PSTA.

Diamond declared his candidacy for the District 68 seat Monday after Dwight Dudley announced he was not seeking re-election.

Concurrent with announcing his campaign, Diamond released a long list of Democratic endorsers, including Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant, House Democratic Leader-Designate Janet Cruz, former Governor Charlie Crist, Sink, as well as St Petersburg Councilmembers Jim Kennedy, Karl Nurse, and Darden Rice.

Pinellas County Commissioners Charlie Justice, Janet Long, and Ken Welch, and Pinellas County Democratic Chair Susan McGrath have also endorsed Diamond.

With Kriseman’s endorsement, Diamond has wrapped up the support of almost every major Democratic elected official in South Pinellas.

“Mayor Kriseman has done great things for the City of St Petersburg,” said Diamond. “I’m honored to have his support, and I’m excited to continue our work to make St. Petersburg and Pinellas County a great place to raise a family.”

Activists protest ‘police murder’ at Pinellas Courthouse over death of 3 teen girls

DSC_0021A small group of activists gathered at the Pinellas County Courthouse Friday afternoon to protest the deaths of three black teenage girls who drowned last month in a stolen car.

The mixed-race group shouted slogans that included “Jail the killer cops!” and demanded reparations for the girls and other African-American teens that, they said, died at the hands of murderous police. They also demanded that the black community have control of the police. They threatened to shut St. Petersburg down should they not be listened to.

During most of the demonstration, which lasted about an hour, the group was heckled by a white man identified only as “Matt” who lives in the “Pinellas Park area.” Matt brought his own megaphone to broadcast his views that the kids were in a stolen car and “got what they deserved.”

He periodically turned on a siren and taunted the protestors with “they’re coming!” and telling them they’d better run. He also told them that Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri “doesn’t care” about their protests nor do other police. When the protesters left, he suggested that police should run the tag numbers of their cars because one or more was likely stolen.

Matt said he had come to air his views because he had lived in Pinellas all his life and was “tired of it.” If someone robs a bank, he said, that person takes the risk that he will be shot. It’s the same with stolen cars. If the girls had not been in a stolen car, he said, none of it would have happened.

The dispute between the protestors, led by the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, was sparked by the early morning deaths of three teenage girls March 31. The three – Laniya Miller, 15, Ashaunti Butler, 15, and Dominique Battle, 16 – were in a stolen car. Deputies from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office were following them when they turned into the Royal Palm North Cemetery, 2600 Gandy Blvd., and drove into a pond.

Gualtieri said his deputies tried to save the girls but were unable to do so because of the muck.

The girls’ families, the Uhurus and others say a videotape shows the deputies standing at the edge of the pond as the car sank. The deputies, they say, made no effort to save the girls.

Gualtieri has branded the charges as “nonsense” and says the scene on the video was taken out of context.

A video clip of the protest, and Matt’s ‘counterprotest,’ is below:


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Lawsuit: Tampa strip club owes dancers $3.7 million

Three former dancers and door girls from the Tampa gentleman’s club Thee Dollhouse have filed suit against the establishment, claiming they and others, are collectively owed millions in unpaid wages.

The plaintiffs — Vikki Vellucci, 46, Lindsay Brizzi, 30 and Alissa Buckingham, 24 — say they are just a few of a potential 300 exotic dancers and door girls who were swindled by the Dollhouse over the last half decade. The three allege that the Dollhouse — which also operates as JBM Management Inc. — and its president, William Bullard, didn’t pay the dancers or door-girls a cent in wages, but actually required them to fork over a fee for each shift worked under the pretense that dancers were independent contractors, rather than employees.

The lawsuit, filed April 20 in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, also alleges that the club required the plaintiffs and their peers to share tips with DJs and other non-tipped employees, which sometimes even included the Dollhouse itself.

According to the Florida Constitution, an employer is permitted to use a portion of its tipped employees’ earned tips to meet its minimum wage requirements so long as the company provides its tipped employees with notice of the tip credit provisions.

As is written in the lawsuit, an exception to this rule occurs when tipped employees contribute to a valid tip pool among employees who customarily and regularly receive tips.

In addition to being accused of misclassifying the dancers and door girls as independent contractors, the Dollhouse is also being accused of not giving proper notice to tipped employees about these tip credit provisions.

According to the suit, Vellucci, who worked at the Dollhouse in 2011 and 2012, is owed over $27,000. While Brizzi, who worked there in 2011, is owed roughly $8,100. And Buckingham, who earned her money there in 2011, is owed $6,400.

In total — as is stated in the proposed class-action lawsuit — the plaintiffs estimate the class of about 300 dancers and door girls affected are owed $3.7-million in all.

In February 2016, the Tampa Tribune reported on a similar federal lawsuit filed against Baby Dolls of Clearwater, citing the alleged incident as part of a national trend.


Sandy Murman has no regrets in helping to kill off Go Hillsborough

Thirty-six hours after she joined three other county commissioners in rejecting the half-cent transportation tax on the November ballot known as Go Hillsborough, Sandy Murman says she has no regrets, but says she might have voted for a tax for a shorter duration than the 30-year, $117 million plan that was presented on Wednesday.

“I have to be honest with you,” she told SPB upon arriving at the Jan Platt Library in South Tampa on Friday morning to meet with constituents. “I was prepared to look at other options. I think it was the whole approach that was taken: ‘all or nothing.’ That really killed it probably for Victor (Crist) and I, who were pretty much the swing votes.”

At one point during the debate before Wednesday night’s vote to kill the proposal, Commissioner Kevin Beckner suggested an alternative 20-year-plan, but it failed to garner a second vote. Murman said she supported a 10-year plan, but neither she or anyone else made that suggestion.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said repeatedly going into Wednesday’s vote that he had no use for such a short timeline, with the debt service being too high for the city to pay. He kicked off the public hearing by saying that, “I can’t issue debt on anything less than 30 years. I can’t go to the federal government without a revenue stream that is consistent, that is long term.”

Buckhorn blasted Murman, Crist and the other two commissioners who opposed putting the measure on the ballot, calling it “a profile in cowardice.”

The Tampa Tribune weighed in on Friday as well with some choice invectives, calling it a “pathetic lack of leadership.”

“I represent a constituency that is hard right and hard left, and I have to really work hard to balance and build consensus and that’s what I plan to do now,” Murman says of the constituents in her District One seat, where she’s running for re-election this fall. “They can make their vitriolic comments, say how ‘pathetic it is, but he (Buckhorn)  came in with an all or nothing approach and you know, I think it turned the county residents off.”

Murman said she is surprised over the shock that the vote has been felt in some quarters since Wednesday night, but insists she’s been consistent about feeling uneasy about the 30-year-tax for months now.

Murman floated her own surprise hybrid proposal on transportation last November, that called for bypassing a sales tax and instead using newly implemented mobility fees, a transportation trust fund financed with a portion of the county’s annual revenue growth; and a 5 cents-per-gallon gas tax. The proposal was met with stone silence by her colleagues, and shortly afterwards, those same colleagues ousted her as county chair, with Les Miller succeeding her.

On Friday Murman backed those proposals once again, and said she agreed with conservatives who lined up en masse on Wednesday to say that the county’s current funding on transportation of 3 percent of the budget was smaller than in comparable counties in Florida.

“We have to get it up to 10 percent,” she says. “Have to. And I have made that statement so many times. And that’s why I want these new revenues – at least half of them to go into trust funds so we can build up the percentage.” She says it time to look at other parts of the budget to cut to do so.

Commissioner Crist tells today’s Tampa Tribune that he prefers a 2.5 percent cut out of general revenues that would include cuts out of the sheriffs department, property appraiser and clerk of the court. Murman concurs, though she says she that Crist’s vision is “harsher” that hers.

“Can they cut back?” she asks of the constitutional offices. “I don’t think we’ve ever asked them.”

The prospect rankles Tampa transit activist Kevin Thurman, who says that “the idea that she wants to take Sheriff deputies off the street and cut our court system and lay off firefighters instead of giving people the chance to vote on a referendum, it clearly says where her priorities lies.”

Thurman says it’s time for the public to stop depending on the county commission to do anything proactive on transportation in the county, and says the next steps include lobbying finding candidates to run against the four board members who opposed Go Hillsborough. He also wants to see the Legislature to allow big cities like Tampa to offer their own tax referendums, and to go through the petition process to get a measure in front of county voters.

Mayor Buckhorn did make an effort a couple of years ago to rally the Hillsborough delegation to sponsor legislation on allowing cities like Tampa to put up their own tax referendums, and didn’t find any takers.

Thurman says none of the county commissioners who opposed putting the measure on the ballot should be proud of what they’ve done.

“Victor Crist promised to judge this on the merits and he did it on ‘instinct.’ Sandy murman promised us we would have a plan that was comprehensive and was something that we could be proud of and there years later we have nothing. And Stacy White completely disagrees with her. He thinks that we need to go back to Square one, so she doesn’t even have consensus on her own board.”

Despite it all, Murman says she’s actually optimistic that something can be accomplished on transportation this year.

“I’m hearing doom and gloom that we wasted the last three years (on Go Hillsborough). We didn’t waste the last three years. We’ve got a good list of roads. It’s not a plan, it’s a list of roads, we need a transit plan. You have to have a transit plan that connects everything and it wasn’t in there, so I think that we’ll definitely do something this year.I’m feeling very optimistic. I think at the end of the day that people will realize ‘let’s do something.'”

On the idea that Go Hillsborough wasn’t much of a plan, critics and supporters do appear to agree.

“I completely agree with Sandy (that) much (of) the county transportation plan is a list of roads. Without HART & the cities it is not a real plan,” he emails.

Thurman says she hasn’t heard much of any comments – pro or con – from her constituents in the wake of the rejection of Go Hillsborough. In fact, there were only a handful of citizens that arrived in the first hour of her appearance at the Jan Platt Library on Friday, and transportation didn’t appear to be on their minds.

One exception was Hillsborough Republican David Wilson. “In my opinion, I think the majority of people actually would want something like that on the ballot because there’s no better since of democracy than everyone getting a vote. It’s about having the maximum amount of input,” he says.

Wilson, who serves on the Metropolitan Planning Organization advisory committee, said he wasn’t sure how he would vote on the matter in November. But now, of course, that doesn’t really matter anymore.


Hillsborough, Tampa Fire Fighters endorse Mark Ober for State Attorney

State Attorney Mark Ober just got a boost in his re-election campaign

Ober scored the endorsements of both the Hillsborough County and Tampa Fire Fighters’ unions as he runs for another term as 13th Judicial Circuit’s state attorney.

“We, as representatives of Tampa Fire Fighters Local #754, take great pleasure in endorsing your candidacy,” said Stephen Suarez, President and Bill Townsend, Secretary/Treasurer, in a joint letter.

“Mr. Ober has served as State Attorney since 2000 and has consistently proven himself and his staff to operate with the highest levels of integrity, efficiency, and protecting the citizens of Hillsborough County,” said Derrik Ryan, President and Ken Forward, Vice-President, of Hillsborough County Fire Fighters. “Mark Ober is a proven protector of the citizens of our community and we ask for your support in his re-election.”

Both the city and county groups are local unions under the broader AFL-CIO, a powerful force in Democratic politics even in a “Right-to-Work” state like Florida.

Ober, a Republican, faces perhaps his first serious challenge since taking office in 2000 from Democrat Andrew Warren, a former federal prosecutor.

But local allies doubt Ober will have much trouble in 2016.

“He enjoys a very, very good reputation,” said Tampa lawyer F. Dennis Alvarez, a former chief judge of Hillsborough. “Mark has kept it low-key. There’s no cause any voter would have to not vote for him.”

Pinellas County Tax Collector candidate Charles Thomas holding May 3 campaign kick-off reception

A campaign kick-off reception honoring Pinellas County Tax Collector candidate Charles Thomas is slated for 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 3, at Bascom’s Chop House in Clearwater.

Thomas, a Republican and long-time Pinellas resident, has served as the county’s Chief Deputy Tax Collector since 2000, the same year Pinellas’ outgoing Tax Collector Diane Nelson, was elected to her post.

Prior to linking-up with Pinellas’ tax collector team, Thomas worked as the program manager for Gordon-Darby Inc. There, he was responsible for  maintaining the company’s $5 million annual budget, as well as overseeing the day-to-day operation of 11 separate locations which generated roughly $14 million in annual revenue. He also served as the organizations’ government relations’ liaison.

So far, Thomas is the only person filed to run for the county’s Tax Collector post.

His host committee includes six of Pinellas’ seven constitutional officers: Public Defender Bob Dillinger, State Attorney Bernie McCabe, Clerk of the Court Ken Burke, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, outgoing Property appraiser Pam Dubov, and the aforementioned Diane Nelson.

Some other big name supporters include St. Pete Sen. Jeff Brandes and Pinellas County Commissioner John Morroni.

The General Election is in November.

Mitch Perry Report for 4.29.16 – Trib frowns on Go Hillsborough vote

Good morning, y’all.

Regular readers of this column may note that it’s being posted a little later this morning. Not to get into Too Much Information, but let’s just say I think when I read Arianna Huffington write that you must have 7/8 hours a sleep every night, well, one can certainly aspire to that.

Rumor has it that Tampa attorney Bob Buesing will declare his candidacy as a Democrat for the newly created Senate District 18 seat in Hillsborough County on Monday. Local Dems believe this is a winnable seat, though Dana Young is formidable.

Alan Grayson has become the 8th co-sponsor of David Jolly’s Stop Act, and why not? Jolly said he would be happy if Grayson endorsed his measure that would ban federal office holders from fundraising, and would allow him to continue to do so this year.

We’ve skimmed through the editorial pages of the Trib, Times and La Gaceta this morning, giving their post-mortem on Wednesday night’s no vote on Go Hillsborough by the Board of County Commissioners.

“We hope Hillsborough voters remember the pathetic lack of leadership by the majority of the Hillsborough County Commission on Wednesday night,” the Trib writes today.

The column goes on to describe the board’s vote as “a shameful performance, with flip-flops and half-baked proposals.”

A couple of thoughts on that: Though in our role as a reporter we never had an opinion on the merits of the proposal,  let’s just say that it would have been interesting to cover this discussion for the next six months.

But the idea that Hillsborough voters will punish those commissioners who voted no? That’s dubious because A) the public seemed to be damn divided on the issue, and B) With the exception of Neil Brickfield and Nancy Rostock going down in 2012 in Pinellas County due to their votes on fluoride, rarely have I seen Tampa Bay/Florida voters ever vote against a lawmaker because of a particular position. Or wouldn’t we see a number of Republicans in the Legislature lose their gigs for opposing Medicaid expansion.

In other news..

Activists in Tampa yesterday denounced the aforementioned House Republican Dana Young for supporting a controversial anti-abortion bill in the Legislature earlier this year.

The Florida Congressional delegation, led by Sarasota’s Vern Buchanan, received an update on the heroin crisis in the U.S. Buchanan represents Manatee County, the number one spot in the state for heroin deaths in 2014.

Renee Flowers has given a ringing endorsement to HD 70 candidate Wengay Newton.

The Day After: The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce says they’re “disappointed” that the Board of County Commissioners voted to deny Hillsborough voters the chance to weigh in on the Go Hillsborough initiative on Wednesday night.

And Florida Congressman (and Dem Senate candidate) Alan Grayson in introducing the “Zombie Property Act of 2015.”

Pinellas Sheriff should step down, says black activist coalition

Accusing Pinellas County deputies of “murdering” three teenage girls who drowned in a stolen car last month, a coalition of black activists have called for Sheriff Bob Gualtieri’s resignation and an investigation into the incident.

“They killed those girls. … They murdered them,” Omali Yeshitela told a roomful of reporters and community supporters. “Bob Gualtieri has to go. He has got to go.”

Yeshitela also called for criminal charges to be brought against the deputies who were involved.

He is the founder of the African Socialist International (ASI), African People’s Socialist Party (APSP) and leader of the Uhuru Movement. Yeshitela made his remarks during a Thursday morning news conference. Also present were the mother and aunt of Ashaunti N. Butler, 15, one of the girls who died.

Gualtieri called Yeshitela’s statements “nonsense.” Yeshitela and others are using “irresponsible rhetoric” in presenting a “false narrative” of the facts of the case.

“They’re really doing a disservice to the entire community,” Gualtieri said. “They’re using false information.”

The dispute stems from a March 31 incident. Deputies said the three girls were in a stolen car that had been spotted first in Clearwater and later around U.S. 19 and Ulmerton Road. A deputy confirmed the car had been stolen in St. Petersburg. Officials said the deputy, who was in an unmarked vehicle, “monitored the car from a distance.”

The car turned into the Royal Palm North Cemetery, 2600 Gandy Blvd., and drove into a pond on the property.

Gualtieri maintains his deputies tried to save the girls but were unable to reach the car because they sank in the mud and got tangled in the muck. The sheriff’s dive team was called and pulled the car from the pond. Inside were Ashaunti Butler, Dominique Battle, 16, and Laniya D. Miller, 15.

Gualtieri held a news conference later that morning, in which he outlined the girls’ criminal history.

On Thursday, he described the three girls as being “on the downhill side of where they should be. They were involved in a crime.

“They were running from the police. It’s sad.”

His deputies, Gualtieri said, acted appropriately.

However, Yeshitela, the girls’ parents, and others, say Gualtieri and the deputies are lying. They point to videos that appear to show deputies standing by the side of the pond making jokes or chatting casually while the girls screamed in terror. They’re also angry about Gualtieri’s highlighting the kids’ criminal histories and displaying mug shots instead of less inflammatory photos.

“They stood and watched them die,” Yeshitela said. Then, the sheriff was guilty of “slandering these girls once they were murdered. … Gualtieri should resign if only for promoting that.”

Yeshitela also demanded that an investigation be held into the girls’ deaths: “We will have our black peoples’ grand jury here. We will investigate. … We demand reparations for the family.”

Yeshitela said the community would hold a protest at 3:30 p.m. Friday at the Pinellas County Courthouse, 14250 49th St. N, Clearwater to demand justice.

Gualtieri said he had heard a protest is planned.

“As long as they stay in the free speech zone …. As long as they follow the law and the rules they can do whatever they want,” Gualtieri said. “It’s free speech but doesn’t make it correct or proper to spread these lies and to spread misinformation.”

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Tampa Chamber of Commerce “disappointed” by rejection of Go Hillsborough initiative

Although they didn’t show their full support for the measure until a week ago the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce says it’s “disappointed” by the fact that the Hillsborough County Commission narrowly voted to reject the proposed half-cent sales tax referendum on transportation on Wednesday night.

“Kicking the can down the road is not what we expect of our elected officials nor what our community deserves,” writes Bob Rohrlack, the chamber’s President and CEO.

“With 1200 member companies representing over a quarter of a million employees, it is our obligation as a Chamber to continue our collaboration efforts with our elected officials on a tangible solution to our challenges going forward,” Rohlack said in a statement. “We know that resolving our transportation issues is one challenge that will not go away on its own and doing nothing simply cannot continue. We are committed to continuing our efforts through education and advocacy.”

Some could argue that the Chamber’s regrets come a bit late. The organization kept mum over the past several months regarding their stance on the half-cent tax, which absolutely would require maximum support from the business community to have a chance at the polls in November. It was just three weeks ago when the organization released partial results of a poll (conducted by SEA Polling & Strategic Designs) to the public that showed that it enjoyed various levels of support. It came with little backup information, however, as Chamber officials said that the crosstabs would only be released after the results were shared among Chamber board members.

And it was only a week ago when the organization gave a full-throated endorsement for the measure, prompting County Administrator Mike Merrill to note, “I think it’s important for the overall effort and I’m really pleased they took a position. I think the business community is key to this, and the chamber is the representative of the business community. So it’s very significant for them to do that.”

The comment suggests that Merrill would have appreciated the support a bit earlier in the PR campaign to persuade specifically one board member – Victor Crist – who was always considered the swing vote regarding the tax – to support putting the measure on the ballot.

“We remain optimistic that our community will one day benefit from a transportation system that meets the needs of businesses and families” Rohlack concludes in his statement.

One unscientific poll shows the public in support of the decision made by Crist, Sandy Murman, Al Higginbotham and Stacy White to reject the idea of having the measure put before voters this fall.

As of 3 p.m. this afternoon, a Tampa Bay Business Journal readers poll of nearly 200 participants showed that 55 percent  surveyed so far agree with the decision not to put the initiative on the November ballot.