TAMPA — A juror in an age discrimination case against Ernie Haire Ford has been charged with filing a false crime report after telling detectives that a dealership employee offered him $75,000 to say there had been jury misconduct.
He said it was an attempt to bolster appeal of the multimillion verdict against the dealership.
Trevor Johnston, 21, of Tampa sat on a Hillsborough Circuit jury in April that returned a $5.8-million verdict in favor of Benjamin Atkinson. A former wholesale manager for Ernie Haire Ford's Florida Avenue store, Atkinson had sued the dealer claiming that a general manager had a pattern of terminating employees over age 40.
Two months after the verdict, Johnston claimed that a man approached him in a North Tampa Wal-Mart and offered him $75,000 to tell a judge there had been juror misconduct, according to a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office investigation report anonymously mailed to the St. Petersburg Times.
Johnston told Sheriff's Office detectives that the man who approached him was Greg Balasco, an Ernie Haire manager.
In an interview with the Times, Johnston acknowledged that it might not have been Balasco who approached him, but someone acting on Balasco's behalf. Sheriff's Office reports show that at the time of the alleged bribery offer, Balasco was on a charter boat out of John's Pass with Howard Frankland III.
Johnston said he worked with detectives to corroborate his story. He said he let his cell phone to be tapped while he tried to contact Balasco. Johnston also said he wore a wire for investigators and tried to meet Balasco face-to-face at the dealership. Neither succeeded.
Johnston refused to take a polygraph test, saying it was an insult to his integrity.
Having been recently fired from two jobs as a car salesman, Johnston said detectives began to think he had a grudge and made his story up. Johnston said he doesn't, but that detectives badgered him to confess to filing a false police report.
"They told me to do this, that this is the smart thing to do," Johnston said of his confession.
"I told them I'm not making this up," he said.
Eventually he caved, he said. He agreed to confess to making a false report because detectives promised him that if he did, he wouldn't be charged with a crime and the whole thing would go away, he said.
"I said fine," Johnston told the Times. "I don't want any trouble. … If anything, I'm guilty of a false confession."
A week or so later, Johnston said he received a summons to appear in court on the misdemeanor charge. He's scheduled to be arraigned next month and said he's prepared to take his chances in court, because he can't afford an attorney.
Hillsborough sheriff's Detective Charles Keene, whom Johnston said handled the investigation, declined to discuss the case.
A lawyer representing Ernie Haire Ford could not be reached late Thursday.
Johnston said he doesn't know the name of the man who approached him. He identified him on Wal-Mart surveillance footage recovered by investigators. Johnston said that detectives were able to track the man because he made a purchase at the store with his credit card.
He said he doesn't know if detectives ever interviewed the man.
Ty Zdravko, one of the attorneys who represented Atkinson, said Johnston called him to say someone had offered him money to throw the case. Zdravko said he thought the timing was peculiar, because Johnston called two days before attorneys were scheduled to argue post-trial motions in court. Zdravko said he told Johnston to notify authorities.
"The way he described it to me, it sounded credible," Zdravko said. "If I thought he was lying or making stuff up, I probably would have told him there was nothing I could do for him."
Johnston said he hasn't been able to talk to Keene to find out what went wrong. He said the detective won't return his calls.
"Even if he comes up and tells me he just screwed me over, that would be better than leaving me in the blue," Johnston said. "I'm in the right. I did what I think is the best thing to do, and unfortunately, bad things happen to good people.''
But he wishes he had kept quiet now. "I'd rather lose sleep over not doing the right thing, than to do the right thing and get screwed."
Kevin Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.