Judge throws out former federal prosecutor's defamation lawsuit

Jeffrey Del Fuoco leaves the federal courthouse in Tampa after a hearing on Wednesday where he admonished by the judge.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Jeffrey Del Fuoco leaves the federal courthouse in Tampa after a hearing on Wednesday where he admonished by the judge.

TAMPA — Former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Del Fuoco isn't going away.

Under fire for filing what one judge called "scandalous" pleadings against Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert E. O'Neill in a civil matter, Del Fuoco escaped the worst trouble the court could have thrown at him Wednesday.

Still, U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore scolded Del Fuoco and dismissed his lawsuit against O'Neill. If Del Fuoco refiles, the judge said, he should do so without subjecting others to "public scorn and untold harm."

"You, as a former prosecutor, know better," Whittemore said.

Del Fuoco, 56, apologized.

Last year, Del Fuoco brought a lawsuit against O'Neill, his former boss, accusing him of defaming Del Fuoco's character in an application for the U.S. Attorney position.

Since then, O'Neill and his attorneys have complained that Del Fuoco has broken the rules of civil procedure by filing pleadings just to smear people's reputations, chiefly O'Neill's.

Wednesday, Del Fuoco sat in court alone, representing himself. A few feet away, O'Neill was flanked by three assistant U.S. attorneys, including Ralph Hopkins, who represented him.

O'Neill wanted the judge to throw the case out and prohibit Del Fuoco from refiling. He also wanted fines.

Del Fuoco told the judge that O'Neill's request for sanctions amounts to "an attempt to browbeat me."

Whittemore didn't go as far as O'Neill wanted. He threw out the case but left room for Del Fuoco to refile within 30 days. He declined to impose fines.

While a federal prosecutor, Del Fuoco earned a reputation as a crusader against public corruption. He holds O'Neill responsible for the loss of his job and believes prosecutors are trying to discredit his complaints about the office's failures by painting him as mentally unstable.

Del Fuoco has sent numerous letters to the White House and Sen. Bill Nelson's office attacking O'Neill as an unfit candidate for U.S. attorney, calling into question O'Neill's ownership of Four Green Fields bar and accusing him of having an extramarital affair with an employee.

In court Wednesday, Judge Whittemore offered Del Fuoco some advice. Stop representing yourself, he said. Hire an attorney.

"I'm afraid you've gotten so emotionally involved in this," Whittemore offered, "that you cannot be objective."

"I agree, your honor," Del Fuoco responded, adding that he has been trying to do just that.

Whittemore warned him that any attorney he does retain should "exercise independent professional judgment."

Del Fuoco said he doesn't know who he will get to represent him. His finances are tight.

His home is in foreclosure and, on Tuesday, he staved off possible arrest by paying $5,000 in delinquent child support.

On Feb. 1, Del Fuoco asked Whittemore to recuse himself from the case. Whittemore on Tuesday filed an order declining to do so.

As Del Fuoco walked out of court Wednesday, he said he respects the judge's opinion. But he said he's nowhere near giving up his challenge against O'Neill.

"I think that's the biggest bone they have to pick with me," Del Fuoco said. "I won't go away."

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

An earlier version of this story gave an outdated title for Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert E. O'Neill.

Judge throws out former federal prosecutor's defamation lawsuit 02/10/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 11, 2010 11:14am]

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