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Mark Puente, Times Staff Writer

Mark Puente

Mark Puente covers Pinellas County government, including the constitutional officers and the way they operate their offices. Puente returned to the Tampa Bay Times in July after two years at The Baltimore Sun. He worked as an investigative reporter and was on the team that was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of the Freddie Gray saga and city's riots. His "Undue Force" series about police brutality led to reform efforts by the U.S. Department of Justice and the city of Baltimore. The series won the Institute on Political Journalism's Clark Mollenhoff Award for Excellence in Investigative Reporting and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism's Paul Tobenkin Memorial Award for reporting on racial or religious hatred, intolerance or discrimination in the United States.

He joined the Times in November 2010 and covered real estate issues as part of the Times' Business team until June 2012. He then covered St. Petersburg City Hall until March 2014. He spent more than five years with the Plain Dealer in Cleveland where he won multiple journalism awards for his investigative work. His reporting forced a 32-year sheriff in Ohio's largest county to resign from office in 2009 and plead guilty to theft-in-office charges.

He took a different path to journalism, logging more than 1 million miles in the cab of a semitrailer truck over 14 years. After leaving the trucking industry, Puente earned a political science degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has a wife and three sons. Go Tar Heels!

Phone: (727) 892-2996

Email: mpuente@tampabay.com

Twitter: @MarkPuente

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  1. St. Petersburg police investigating why civilian employees accidentally fired AR-15 semiautomatic rifle inside HQ

    Blog

    ST. PETERSBURG — An internal police investigation is looking into two civilian employees who accidentally fired a round from an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle inside St. Petersburg Police Department headquarters.

    Police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez confirmed that the incident is being looked at by the department's Office of Professional Standards. Those investigators are trying to find out why the employees brought the rifle — which was a personal weapon, not department-issued — into the building. The department will not release any details about the incident, she said, including when it took place or the identities of the two employees until the investigation is completed....

    The St. Petersburg Police Department is investigating an incident in which two civilian employees accidentally fired an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle they brought inside police headquarters. Department rules prohibit civilian employees from bringing weapons into police facilities.
  2. Lawsuit: Florida contractor fakes death to dodge angry homeowners

    Human Interest

    SEMINOLE — For weeks, Glenn Holland, 67, crawled out of bed before the sun rose to look for a dead man.

    The retiree and Vietnam veteran spent several weeks on stakeout in his Ford F-150. Under the cover of darkness, he waited outside the home of a man he was told had died in a car crash.

    For weeks, neither the Corvette, Hummer or pick-up truck in the driveway moved.

    Holland nearly gave up. He waited one last time. It was 4 a.m. on a Friday in March....

    Glenn and Judith Holland at Morton Plant Hospital, where she is undergoing radiation treatment for cancer. Last year the couple said they paid a contractor thousands of dollars to renovate their future retirement home in Seminole. But when they tried to move in on Dec. 14, they said the home was in shambles and uninhabitable. They sent a text message to contractor Marc Anthony Perez at 12:36 p.m. looking for answers. Fourteen minutes later, they got back this text: "This is Marc's daughter, dad passed away on the 7th of December in a car accident. Sorry." Turns out Perez was still alive. Now the Hollands are suing him in Pinellas-Pasco circuit court. [LARA CERRI   |   Times]
  3. Drew Atkinson drops out of contention to lead the Pinellas County Attorney's Office

    Blog

    As Pinellas County's 12 elected leaders work to select a new legal adviser, one of the five candidates under consideration withdrew from the hiring process.

    Drew Atkinson, 44, the general counsel at the Florida Department of Management Services, notified county leaders Wednesday that he was withdrawing his application to lead the Pinellas County Attorney's Office. That leaves four candidates vying for the post, which pays more than $215,000 a year....

    From left, Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice, Commissioner and County Attorney Oversight Board Chair Janet Long, attorney Wade Vose and Commissioner and Board Vice-Chair Kenneth Welch are seen during an organizational meeting of the County Attorney Oversight Committee in the Clearwater courthouse in February.
  4. Legal Idol: Pinellas leaders select five candidates for county attorney's job

    Local Government

    CLEARWATER — The committee of Pinellas elected leaders tasked with hiring a new county attorney said Thursday the old one has left them in a bit of a bind.

    The Pinellas County Attorney Oversight Committee — comprised of seven county commissioners and five constitutional officers with the power to hire and fire the county attorney — finalized a list of five candidates who are being considered to replace departing county attorney Jim Bennett....

    The Pinellas County Attorney Oversight Committee, a new government body comprised of seven county commissioners and five constitutional officers, met Thursday and picked five finalists to become the next county attorney. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri spoke during a February meeting. [ANDRES LEIVA   |   Times]
  5. Pinellas County Attorney Jim Bennett exits early to use up vacation hours

    Local Government

    CLEARWATER –– After nine years as the Pinellas County Attorney, Jim Bennett is no longer advising county leaders. He left his post May 27 and is collecting unused vacation until he retires July 5.

    Jewel White, Bennett's chief assistant attorney since 2014, now leads the office.

    "He's gone, " Pinellas County Commission Chair Janet Long said. "He is taking his vacation time. I'm fine with that."...

    Pinellas County Attorney Jim Bennett, who announced in January that he would retire in July,. is now collecting unused vacation hours until July 30. He turned the office over to his chief assistant attorney. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
  6. For now, Pinellas County Commission won't loan any money to keep construction licensing board open

    Local Government

    CLEARWATER — The grim financial future of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board will continue to linger until authorities finish a sweeping investigation of the agency.

    The Pinellas County Commission said during Tuesday's budget hearing that it would not loan the agency any money until it knows how much it actually needs to stay afloat beyond February 2018....

    The Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board is located at 12600 Belcher Road in Largo.  [SCOTT KEELER  |   Times]
  7. Pinellas County Commission will hear construction board woes

    Military

    CLEARWATER –– The future of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board could hang on whether the Pinellas County Commission loans the troubled agency taxpayer money.

    As the licensing board is projected to go broke in February, it will likely ask commissioners today for a bailout during a budget hearing.

    But that could be a tough sell. Four commissioners told the Tampa Bay Times last week that they had concerns about lending taxpayer dollars to an agency with no government oversight and under a grand jury investigation. Those commissioners said the agency should ask the state for a loan....

    The Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board is projected to go broke in February and has used $400,000 from reserves just to stay open.
  8. The Pinellas agency that's supposed to crack down on bad contractors is about to go broke

    Local Government

    LARGO — Already saddled with controversy and a grand jury investigation, the latest budget projections paint a grim picture for the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board:

    The agency will go broke in February.

    The independent agency, created by the Florida Legislature in 1973 to crack down on bad contractors in the county, has siphoned $400,000 from reserves just to stay open. Meanwhile it's down to 1½ inspectors (one is part-time) and isn't issuing — or collecting — enough fines to stay solvent....

    Rodney Fischer, center, is the former executive director of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, seen here during a February meeting. The licensing board is struggling financially and will shut down in February if it doesn't get a bridge loan. But the Pinellas County Commission isn't keen on bailing the agency out. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
  9. Race organizer hopes to start New Year's Day half marathon on Sunshine Skyway Bridge

    Local Government

    ST. PETERSBURG — The Sunshine Skyway Bridge is often closed due to high winds. But someone wants to close it for a different reason: so thousands of runners can run a half marathon across the iconic bridge on New Year's Day.

    A Bradenton company is working to win approval from local and state agencies to shut the bridge down between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Jan. 1 so joggers can run north to the top of the bridge as the sun rises over Tampa Bay....

  10. Tampa General Hospital names new CEO with local roots

    Health

    TAMPA — After a nationwide search, Tampa General Hospital had to go only 200 miles to find its next president and chief executive officer.

    The hospital announced Monday that John D. Couris, a hospital executive from Jupiter with a decade of high-level experience in Pinellas and Pasco counties, will become its new leader in September.

    PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Tampa General Hospital CEO Jim Burkhart resigns...

    Tampa General Hospital on Monday announced that John Couris will become its new president and CEO. He was the president and CEO of Jupiter Medical Center, a 327-bed not-for-profit hospital in Jupiter. [Courtesy of Tampa General Hospital]
  11. Pinellas sheriff says construction board never asked for help cracking down on unlicensed contractors

    Local Government

    While homeowners continue to fall prey to unlicensed contractors, the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board can't do much to stop violators. The agency is down to one part-time investigator. It also doesn't have the power to enforce the law or collect unpaid fines.

    The problem has gotten so bad, according to licensing board officials, that the troubled agency wants backup: the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office....

    The house on Limona Drive in Brandon was part of an unlicensed contracting scheme, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. A judge recently put a lien on the home after an unlicensed contractor bilked $198,000 from an elderly woman, a deputy said. The judge also sent the unlicensed contractor to prison for five years, a deputy said. [SKIP O' ROURKE  I  Times]
  12. Pinellas construction board is supposed to catch unlicensed contractors, but missed the illegal work at its own HQ

    Local Government

    LARGO –– The Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board routinely catches hundreds of contractors working without permits. But there was an instance when the agency failed to catch a scofflaw –– at their own doorstep.

    In December 2014, workers installed electronic signs and awnings around the licensing board complex on Belcher Road. One sign was installed directly over the entrance of the agency that's supposed to be on the lookout for illegal contracting....

  13. Prosecutors want Gov. Rick Scott to veto raid on their money

    Courts

    In some ways, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe runs his office like a business, setting money aside in case of a rainy day.

    But McCabe and other top prosecutors across the state could lose $10 million in extra revenue as part of the Legislature's $542.3 million raid on a wide range of trust funds.

    So Florida prosecutors are urging Gov. Rick Scott to whip out his veto pen and wipe out that plan....

    Bernie McCabe worries his office could lose up to $2.3 million.
  14. Pinellas licensing board executive director settled hundreds of cases without getting his board's approval

    Local Government

    By Mark Puente

    Times Staff Writer

    Eleanor Morrison complained to the Pinellas licensing board in 2015 that her contractor installed crooked walls and windows and poured too much concrete for her carport.

    A panel of experts reviewed the evidence and ruled in her favor. The contractor faced a fine and possible license suspension.

    That's when Rodney Fischer stepped in. ...

    Rodney Fischer retired as executive director of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board on Jan. 31. Now his agency is facing financial troubles and is searching for ways to get back in the black. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
  15. Pinellas County receives $30 million for beach renourishment

    Local Government

    CLEARWATER — While Pinellas beaches continually rank among the best in America, they need help to stay that way.

    The county has landed $30 million to complete renourishment projects at three popular beaches.

    The funding for the Pinellas County Shore Protection Project will go toward about 10.5 miles of work at Sand Key, Upham Beach and Treasure Island. The federal projects are administered by the Jacksonville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers....

    The Army Corps of Engineers has allocated $30 million to help with beach renourishment at several Pinellas locations, including including Sand Key, Treasure Island and Upham Beach. This photo from 2014 shows how waves from high tides caused beach erosion at Sunset Beach near Mansions by the Sea condominium complex SCOTT KEELER   |   Times