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Judge orders prosecutors to release records about Tampa police informer

Informer Rita Girven is at the center of a federal investigation involving the Tampa Police Department.

Informer Rita Girven is at the center of a federal investigation involving the Tampa Police Department.

TAMPA — Overriding the resistance of law enforcement officials, a judge has ordered prosecutors to disclose a broad range of records documenting the work of a scandal-plagued Tampa police informer.

The order comes in the criminal case against Rita Girven, an informer who is now at the center of a federal corruption investigation involving the Tampa Police Department. Girven and three former TPD employees are suspected of conspiring to commit tax fraud.

Girven's attorneys had argued for the release of the department's records of her history of assistance to police, typically kept secret under state law protecting informers. The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office and Police Department fought the request, which a prosecutor characterized as a "fishing expedition" to uncover police misconduct.

In a sweeping order issued last week, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Samantha Ward sided with Girven's defense team.

Ward ordered the disclosure not only of Girven's formal paperwork as an informer, but of material including officers' notes about contact with Girven, records of payments or promises of preferential treatment she received and information about the specific officers who recruited and managed her.

Combined, the documents — which will be available to the public and defense lawyers under state records laws — could offer an unusually full look at a little scrutinized realm of police work.

"It's a landmark event," said Ralph Fernandez, one of Girven's defense lawyers. "We don't know how far it's going to reach at this point in time, and we don't how much trouble we're going to have getting the order enforced."

Hillsborough State Attorney's Office spokesman Mark Cox said he is not aware of any plans to appeal the ruling, and that prosecutors would turn over the documents once they were compiled by the Police Department. Police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said the department was working with the State Attorney's Office to comply with the order.

Girven, 31, is implicated in a federal grand jury investigation that has drawn in several former Police Department employees.

Sgt. LaJoyce Houston and her husband, former homicide detective Eric Houston, were both fired amid investigations of potential crimes committed with Girven. The couple has known Girven for years and raised one of her children.

A department community service officer, Tonia Bright, resigned after learning she was a target of the grand jury.

Girven and LaJoyce Houston have been charged, in state court, with food-stamp fraud and grand theft. Authorities say LaJoyce Houston illegally used Girven's food stamps to buy groceries. They have both pleaded not guilty.

In a federal affidavit that was made public in May, investigators also revealed that they were looking into a fraud scheme in which Eric Houston and Bright might have been involved. The affidavit stated that fraudulent tax refunds were sent to Girven's home address for people whose identities might have been stolen using police databases. The federal investigation is ongoing.

Girven has become a vivid exception to the secrecy that usually surrounds police informers.

Tampa police have refused to confirm or deny her status as an informer, now or in the past, citing state law. But the federal affidavit states that she "has often worked as a registered confidential informant for the Tampa Police Department." In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times from jail, Girven boasted that she had close relationships with as many as 300 Tampa officers.

Girven's attorneys have argued that the department's files on her could show she was promised immunity from criminal prosecution. At a hearing late last month, Assistant State Attorney Sheri Maxim argued that Girven's past work as an informer was irrelevant to the current charges against her.

"I see this as a fishing expedition to gain access to the Tampa Police Department's (police informer) files to be able to look for . . . any potential deficiencies," Maxim said.

Laurie Woodham, a lawyer for the Police Department, said at the hearing that some of the records might not be available because they have been subpoenaed by the federal grand jury.

Tampa attorney John Fitzgibbons, a former federal prosecutor who is not involved in Girven's case, said a federal subpoena should not prevent the release of records in a state criminal case.

In addition to potentially aiding Girven's defense, he said the files also could shed light on broader issues with the police's management of informers.

"It is clear that Ms. Girven had an incredible relationship with the Tampa Police Department, almost to a level I've never seen before," Fitzgibbons said. "It will be interesting once those records are released to see if there's some dirty laundry that's contained in them."

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Peter Jamison at pjamison@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3337. Follow @petejamison.

Judge orders prosecutors to release records about Tampa police informer 07/07/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 8, 2014 7:44am]
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