TAMPA — A federal judge has ordered an embattled ex-prosecutor to court next week.
And according to U.S. District Judge James Whittemore's court filing, it's not for a friendly chat.
Jeffrey Del Fuoco must explain to Whittemore why he shouldn't be sanctioned for "repeatedly including immaterial and scandalous allegations in his pleadings," according to the order.
The problem: if Del Fuoco shows as ordered, he could be hauled to jail for non-payment of child support.
And if he doesn't show, he could be held in contempt of court.
Reached by phone Friday, Del Fuoco said he was in New Jersey, trying to set up a law practice.
Asked what he'll do, Del Fuoco gave no direct answer.
A lawyer hired by Del Fuoco's wife said that until the 56-year-old Tarpon Springs man has earned enough in New Jersey to pay the court $5,000 toward his child support, it's unlikely he'll be back in Tampa.
"I don't know if he's going to be there," Tampa attorney Walter Foster said.
Since leaving his job as a federal prosecutor in 2005, Del Fuoco has been papering federal court with accusations involving his former boss, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert E. O'Neill, one of three candidates to become the new U.S. attorney for Florida's Middle District.
Del Fuoco, who O'Neill has described as "erratic" and "manic at times," filed suit against O'Neill last year. Among other things, the complaint takes issue with the way O'Neill characterized Del Fuoco in his application to be appointed to the U.S. Attorney post.
As the St. Petersburg Times reported last week, Del Fuoco blames O'Neill for the loss of his job, and has flooded the White House and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's office with letters and e-mails attacking O'Neill, charging he had an extra-marital affair with an employee and once raised money for an Irish Republican Army leader.
Now, Whittemore writes in an order signed Jan. 23 that some of Del Fuoco's court filings "have been filed for no other purpose than to air scandalous accusations on the record, expressly and by innuendo" against O'Neill.
Del Fuoco's response: he asked Whittemore to recuse himself.
Del Fuoco claims the judge's son once served as co-counsel with O'Neill on a 2007 case, and the pair are "close friends and associates." And, he wrote in a motion, he might need to call Whittemore's son as a witness.
Tampa civil attorney Thomas Steele has nothing to do with the case. But at the request of a Times reporter, he speculated about the range of potential "sanctions" Whittemore could impose against Del Fuoco, depending on what he finds based on the circumstances.
Whittemore could fine him. He could toss out the case. Or, since Del Fuoco is representing himself as a citizen — not a Florida licensed attorney — the attorney could lose his ability to file any more cases without the express permission of the chief judge.
"At some point," Steele said, "the court can say enough is enough."
Through a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office, O'Neill declined to talk about the case.
Del Fuoco said his house is in foreclosure. He might have to cash in his son's college fund to cover the cost of the $5,000 child support arrears. And, according to Foster, Pinellas County sheriff's deputies have been aggressively seeking him to answer for his non-payment.
Still, Del Fuoco says he has no intention of wavering.
"I'm going to pursue this case," he said, "I plan to win this case and I'm not going to let Mr. O'Neill off."
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3383.