The real story of Sam Samsonov and the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority comes to light

photoBY MARCY SHORTUSE – Sam Samsonov and his wife of 53 years, Margaret, sat by the pool at their Grove City home on Monday afternoon, July 20 in good spirits. They sat with a folder full of emails and good wishes people from all over the country have sent them, and literally breathless with the knowledge of how many people from all over the world who think Sam is a good guy who was done wrong.

Sam is the guy you’ve all been hearing about, the toll tender who was allegedly fired for his act as a Good Samaritan in paying an extra axle fee for a customer. It’s been almost a week since he was let go, and you can tell he’s feeling considerably better about the whole situation … except for one thing.

“I have to tell everyone, thank you for supporting me, but you cannot blame the other tollbooth tenders for what happened,” he said. “This has all gone way too far.”

There are a few things he wanted to make sure everyone was clear about. He had already discussed cutting his hours down to part-time, beginning in August. He was getting too tired, and even after his wife and daughter, Patty, told him he needed to slow down, he fought it.

“He would come home at night and sit down to watch TV, and his face would just be white,” Margaret said. “He would fall asleep, get up around 7:30 p.m. and tell me he was going to bed.”

Sam was not on a pension plan with the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority. He has a full military pension from the United States Armed Forces (he served in the Army in Vietnam as a medic), but he was not going to receive a pension from the bridge authority.

He also said that no fundraisers are necessary. While he truly appreciates the thought, he said he and Margaret are doing just fine as they are.

“That’s all got to stop,” both he and his wife said. “Somebody told us there was an Indiegogo page set up to send Sam on a vacation. It’s really wonderful that people care, but we don’t need that.”

What this all started out as, Sam explained, was that he didn’t want people to think his abrupt departure was due to him stealing. His daughter put a statement on Facebook, and the story exploded from there.

Anyone who knows him would never think that was an option, that’s the irony of the situation. This is the man who turned the Bush family’s Secret Service agents down when they tried to cross the tollbooth gate without the required payment. A former sheriff’s deputy on the island took that call from a disgruntled Secret Service man, who said they shouldn’t have to pay.

“Of course you have to pay Sam, even we have to pay!” the deputy said.

Another time, many years ago, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf was scheduled to speak at the Boca Grande Club. When he came up to the tollbooth he said, “I’m General Norman Schwarzkopf.”

“It’s good to meet you, Sir,” Sam responded.

“I have a speaking engagement at the Boca Grande Club,” Gen. Schwarzkopf replied.

“That’s wonderful,” Sam said. “That will be $3.20.” (That shows how long ago it was).

When Schwarzkopf told Sam he didn’t have any money, Sam told him to pull up and over to the side. He called the Boca Grande Club, and they sent someone right down to pay his toll.

So why, exactly, was Sam fired? As many situations like that go, it was not cut and dried. First, let it be known that in a small business such as GIBA, everyone has known each other for years. Kathy Banson-Verrico, the executive director of GIBA, has known Sam for 17 years. She hasn’t always been his boss, but she is now. And the employee handbook states that “Anything that happens on your shift that is not standard operating procedure should be written on the inconsistent transaction log (Example: Missing a trailer, wrong change given, AP pulling trailer, misclass, etc.).”

Sam said he was busy talking to the customer in the SUV pulling a little trailer behind. He said he specifically remembers hitting the “car” button instead of the “car with trailer” button, and realized his mistake as the customer drove away.

“It was entirely my fault, I wasn’t paying attention,” he said. “So I put the money in the drawer.”

Security cameras monitor all GIBA tollbooth activity. Every axle on every vehicle that crosses the Causeway is recorded. When the axle count doesn’t match up (because Sam had accidently hit the wrong button), the administration has to check out what happened.

In an email sent to Banson-Verrico on Wednesday, July 15 – one day after Sam’s termination – GIBA Chairman Ginger Watkins rehashed the incident.

“Cash toll collection in the booth must balance to the video record and toll category system in the accounting department,” Ginger wrote. “If an accurate record is not achieved on a shift, attendants have been personally corrected and policies restated to all personnel. Both the executive director and the accounting manager have discussed with attendants and sent memos to the effect that if the dollar amount does not balance, the policy is to admit the mistake and reconcile the mistake with accounting … the action of personally funding or withdrawing cash to make it correct before it is turned into accounting is considered fraudulent by the auditors and a terminable offense by GIBA.”

The email also refers to a letter Sam found in his workstation cubby the morning of July 14. It was a memo that was given to all tollbooth tenders, not just Sam, dated February of this year, which addressed the issues of toll tenders putting their own money in the drawer or lending money to customers, and the fact that they were to accept large-denomination bills, such as $50 and $100 bills, regardless of how much change they had.

That letter stated, “On more than one occasion I have had to talk to more than one toll tender about trying to cover up a mistake. People make mistakes and I don’t have a problem with that, just write it down. What I do have a problem with is when people try to cover up their mistake!!” Signed, Kathy Banson-Verrico.

Banson-Verrico added a new note on that copy in Sam’s workstation, which said, “This letter is dated Feb. 23, 2015 and I know you saw it, yet on July 3, 2015 you did it again. Why? This letter clearly states the consequences. Please see me.”

This handwritten note was also signed by Banson-Verrico, but not signed or initialed by Sam, so it’s hard to tell whether he saw it or not.

Three times on the day of Sam’s termination he had conversations with Kathy about how they would proceed. Eventually the discussion ceased, and Sam told them they would have to fire him.

In the letter for Sam’s file dated July 15, Kathy said, “At the end of his shift, Mr. Samsonov came back into my office and we discussed his options again. He again informed me of his refusal to conform to GIBA policies and refusal to accept the days he was offered. He requested termination immediately. I asked him to please go home and think about his decision and get back to me and he said ‘No, terminate me.’ I terminated him on July 14, 2015 at 2 p.m.

As with any trying situation, there are still some unanswered questions and thoughts. But, in the end, Sam and Kathy’s statements agreed with each other.

In the meantime, the story has traveled worldwide. From Boca Grande to Ghana to the UK and all places in between, everyone has now heard of Sam, and they most certainly have his back. To the extreme in some cases, as the GIBA office has been flooded with threatening calls and emails. Tollbooth tenders have been yelled at, called scum and told they should be fired. The Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce has received calls, as has our newspaper.

But now you have the story. Sam was not going to get a pension. He doesn’t need money. And he’s not going to sue GIBA. He just wants the publicity to stop now, so he can retire and enjoy his family and helping other people. Like we said before, he’s a good guy.

“I’d like to see each and every one of the people I saw every day and buy them a beer,” he said. “Just not all at once, I’d go broke.”

Just before the interview ended Sam said, “I want you to write this as the last thing. Sam Samsonov may be a little cuckoo, but he has his family and friends backing him 100 percent. That’s for sure.”

We’ll miss you, Sam.