TAMPA — Michael Hernandez admits lying to investigators and wiping out the computer files for a child pornography suspect who worked for the Florida Department of Children and Families because he considered him his "best friend."
He later admitted that he helped cover up for Al Zimmerman, the former DCF spokesman, and worked with authorities build a case against him. But his cooperation came too late, and prosecutors charged him with making false statements to law enforcement.
U.S. District Judge Susan C. Bucklew sentenced Hernandez Tuesday to two years' probation for pleading guilty to the offense.
"If I could go back to that day and change the way I did things, and knowing what I know now, I would do it in a heartbeat," Hernandez said in court.
The judge also ordered he pay a $2,500 fine.
Last month, Bucklew sentenced Zimmerman to more than 24 years in prison for producing child porn. He admitted to enticing underage boys into posing for sexually explicit images and sending them to his cell phone or e-mail account.
Prosecutors said Zimmerman, 41, committed the offenses from at least October 2004 until December 2007 in Hillsborough and Orange counties. They identified at least six victims, including one foster child in state care.
In court Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Colleen Murphy-Davis described Hernandez as "a victim of a predator." She asked for a reduction in his sentence, making him eligible for probation.
"He allowed himself to be duped," Murphy-Davis said.
Hernandez was a 23-year-old college student from Tallahassee who worked as a computer technician for the DCF. He told authorities that he and Zimmerman had a sexual relationship.
He initially lied to the FBI when they asked about Zimmerman but later told them he destroyed computer files at Zimmerman's request.
The DCF fired Hernandez.
"What I don't understand is why, when questioned by law enforcement in the beginning, you didn't tell the truth?" Bucklew asked.
"Because I thought that Al was my best friend," Hernandez said.
Court records show that Zimmerman told Hernandez he had applied for a job with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. He grew concerned about a background investigation and asked Hernandez to destroy files on his computers.
Kevin Graham can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.