By Lee Logan, Times Staff WriterIn Print: Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Dennis Bulin arrived in Zephyrhills as a skydiving bum in the late '70s. He quickly moved to a new hobby, scuba diving.
The inventor and entrepreneur combined those two passions into Zeagle Systems Inc., one of the leading scuba gear manufacturing companies and a pillar in the east Pasco business community. The company turned 32 this year.
An owner of several patents, Bulin turned his company into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. It's nothing short of a small business success story.
This week Bulin, 61, celebrated another milestone in a lesser-known chapter of his life. Against the worst of odds, he received a full pardon from President Barack Obama.
The rare decision from the president stemmed from a crime that happened more than two decades ago. Bulin was sentenced in March 1987 by a federal court in Alabama on a felony conviction of conspiracy to distribute more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana.
He received five years of probation and had to pay a $20,000 fine. No further details of the arrest and conviction were available Tuesday.
Fast forward nearly 25 years. On Monday afternoon, the White House quietly issued a news release announcing that Bulin and four others received a presidential pardon. Bulin is one of only 22 people to receive a pardon during Obama's time in office, out of 4,625 applications.
Bulin did not respond to an email and messages left at his office and Wesley Chapel home.
The incident has rarely surfaced, and it appears few people even knew about the conviction. In a brief conversation Tuesday afternoon, longtime business associate Jim Wittstruck of St. Petersburg seemed genuinely perplexed about the news.
"I've known him since 1983," he said. "I don't know what to tell you."
After the conviction, it appears Bulin quickly moved on with his life.
Only a year after the sentence, he was back in Pasco, lobbying county commissioners for a zoning permit to construct a warehouse on Chancey Road in Zephyrhills. The business had been in operation for nine years at that point and had outgrown its leased quarters.
Then, in October 1992, Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Florida Cabinet restored Bulin's civil rights. That gave him the right to vote, serve on a grand jury, hold public office and obtain several business licenses. He is registered to vote as a Republican.
The only campaign contribution linked to Bulin is a $250 donation to the 1996 campaign of Hillsborough Circuit Judge Gregory Holder. He has since avoided trouble with the law, as a check of Florida and federal courts shows no other arrests or convictions.
But the 1992 restoration of his civil rights didn't remove the stain of his earlier conviction. Only the president could do that.
The federal conviction prevented him from owning a gun. And while he regained his rights in Florida, the felony restrictions would follow him if he moved to other states.
The Florida Parole Commission does not release applications for clemency and the U.S. Department of Justice also does not release pardon applications.
Bulin started his career by working at a small parachute equipment manufacturer, Eagle Systems. He later bought the company and tacked a "Z" onto the name for Zephyrhills. For a few years the company continued to sell parachute equipment, but quickly began selling only diving equipment.
By 1994, the Times wrote a profile on the business that detailed its innovative products, such as scuba gear outfitted with a rip cord that released weights to allow a diver to surface quickly in case of an emergency.
Zeagle also pioneered putting weights into a so-called buoyancy compensation vest, instead of divers having to wear a separate weight belt. The story described a $3 million company with a problem that every business owner would envy — growing too quickly.
"We are trying to slow it down," he said at the time. "We don't want it to get out of hand."