Sunday, August 19, 2018
News Roundup

Pinellas construction licensing board investigator resigns after road rage allegation

PALM HARBOR — An investigator with the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board resigned Wednesday after being accused of threatening two people with a baseball bat during a road rage incident on Tampa Road.

Anthony DeBernardi pulled out his licensing board badge during the confrontation, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, even though he is not a sworn law enforcement officer. The board's investigators look into complaints against contractors.

The confrontation ended when the other driver pulled out a firearm and deputies were called.

DeBernardi, 44, was not arrested, deputies said, because the other people involved in the altercation declined to press charges.

Records show that was not the first time DeBernardi has been accused of confronting motorists or exceeding the authority given to him by the licensing board.

The agency itself has come under scrutiny after a series of Tampa Bay Times reports raised questions about how it treats residents, disciplines contractors and adheres to the law. The agency is now under new management and is being investigated by a grand jury.

DeBernardi spent four years working at the agency and earned about $48,000 last year. He did not respond to requests for comment this week.

He resigned Wednesday after the Pinellas County Office of the Inspector General questioned him about the incident. Gay Lancaster, the licensing board's interim executive director, declined to comment Thursday.

The incident took place about 6:38 p.m. April 18, deputies said, near Allens Ridge Drive. A Toyota Prius accidentally pulled in front of DeBernardi's convertible BMW on westbound Tampa Road. DeBernardi, who was off duty, told deputies he thought the male driver either threw something or spit at his vehicle while they were driving.

DeBernardi followed the Prius, deputies said. The driver told dispatchers DeBernardi was "flashing his badge" and yelling that he was going to run "their tag," according to sheriff's records. Then both stopped and the confrontation ensued on the roadway.

DeBernardi's "menacing" actions constituted "aggravated assault," according to a deputy's report. But the other driver and his passenger declined to press charges. The other driver was also acting within his rights when he brandished his "lawfully possessed handgun" during the incident, the report said. DeBernardi became "remorseful" and apologized after deputies questioned him, the report said.

In another incident in March 2014, DeBernardi received a warning letter from the licensing board for using a database to track down a driver. An "irate" resident believed DeBernardi entered his license plate into the database to locate his phone number, records show. Then-executive director Rodney Fischer brought the issue to an "amicable resolution" after he asked DeBernardi to apologize to the resident, according to the warning letter.

The same year, the inspector general investigated a resident's complaint that DeBernardi unlawfully searched a vehicle. The agency's investigators carry badges, but do not have police powers. The inspector general eventually concluded there wasn't enough evidence to prove or disprove whether DeBernardi searched the vehicle.

The inspector general report on that incident found that Fischer "was very noncommittal about whether personnel issues are documented."

DeBernardi joined the licensing board in 2013 while his mother was Fischer's secretary. Fischer left the agency on Jan. 31. The grand jury investigation started in February.

He and Fischer have another tie. Fischer rents a mobile home to DeBernardi. In October, DeBernardi sought a protective injunction against a Times reporter, saying the reporter was stalking him after visiting his home to ask about his rental arrangement with Fischer. A judge denied his request.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.

 
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