Sunday, April 22, 2018
News Roundup

Dozen DUI cases dropped in fallout over fired Tampa police sergeant

TAMPA — One of the accused was spotted driving down Kennedy Boulevard just before midnight with her headlights off.

Another blew at twice the alcohol level for conviction of drunken driving. Two more were pulled over after driving the wrong way on one-way streets.

Twelve people facing drunken driving charges in Tampa now have something else in common: Their cases have been dropped because former Tampa police DUI Sgt. Ray Fernandez was involved.

Fernandez, a 19-year veteran of the department, was fired last month after an internal investigation determined he misused his authority, likely destroyed evidence and lied about a DUI setup scandal still playing out.

Now, the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office has closed 12 pending cases in which Fernandez was an important figure and an essential witness — such as what's called the "stop officer" who made the initial traffic stop that led to the arrest.

"We're not going to use him as a witness if he's been found to be untruthful," said Douglas Covington, the bureau chief of misdemeanor and traffic cases for the State Attorney's Office.

Tim Taylor, an attorney for one of the accused, said putting Fernandez on the witness stand could have been "a three-ring circus" under the circumstances.

"He's testifying, and how do we know he's truthful?" Taylor asked. His client, he said, was "happy" the case was dropped.

"We just have to hope that the DUI arrest is the wakeup call for these drivers," said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy. "You were put in handcuffs, taken to jail, held accountable for your actions. Lots of times that's enough to make people change their behavior."

But the fired officer's attorney called dropping those DUI cases "irresponsible."

Chip Purcell said there was no credible evidence that Fernandez was untruthful and called his firing "a political sacrifice." Fernandez, he said, will fight to get his job back with the police force.

John Fitzgibbons, attorney for C. Philip Campbell, whose DUI arrest started it all, fired back.

"There's not a prosecutor in the land," he said, "that would go forward with a witness like that."

The State Attorney's Office is also reviewing Fernandez's role in about 40 other DUI arrests dating to 2000 — cases in which the accused didn't show up to court and an arrest warrant was issued.

The recently closed misdemeanor DUI files now include a copy of a blistering report made by specially assigned Pinellas-Pasco prosecutors detailing the controversial Jan. 23 arrest of lawyer Campbell.

Campbell was in the midst of a bitter defamation trial, representing radio personality Todd Schnitt against rival Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.

The special investigation into that arrest detailed "collaboration" and "organized effort" that night at Malio's bar in downtown Tampa involving members of Adams & Diaco, the opposing law firm representing Clem.

One of the firm's paralegals called her boss to say she spotted Campbell at the bar. She sat with him, lied about where she worked and bought drinks.

Dozens of text messages and calls flew among her and members of her law firm. There were at least 90 between an Adams & Diaco lawyer and his good friend Sgt. Fernandez.

Campbell was arrested while driving the paralegal's car, but the charge was dropped after the investigation.

Fernandez has said he was just following a tip about a drunken driver.

The incident is the subject of investigations by both the Florida Bar and the FBI.

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