Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Politics

DUI charge filed against Port Richey city manager; authorities point to .367 blood-alcohol level

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NEW PORT RICHEY — Prosecutors on Thursday charged Port Richey City Manager Tom O'Neill with DUI after an investigation revealed he had a blood-alcohol level more than four times the level at which state law presumes a driver is impaired.

Just before midnight on July 13, New Port Richey Police Cpl. William Phillips responded to a 911 call about a Ford Escape idling in the middle of Astor Drive. The brake lights were on, both rear windows down, and the driver appeared to be asleep at the wheel.

Phillips wrote in his report that he recognized the sleeping man as O'Neill, the former New Port Richey city manager. Phillips requested the Florida Highway Patrol and the Pasco Sheriff's Office to respond "to avoid the appearance or potential conflict of interest," he wrote in the report. Emergency dispatch sent an officer from Port Richey — where O'Neill is now city manager.

For 45 minutes, paramedics were unable to wake him. Then, a police dash cam video showed O'Neill emerge from the driver's seat with his arms over paramedics' shoulders as they walked him to the back bumper. Phillips asked O'Neill to perform field sobriety exercises, but O'Neill was unable. He wouldn't say whether he'd been drinking

An ambulance took him to a hospital, and he was not further investigated for DUI.

New Port Richey police Chief Kim Bogart backed his officer's decision that night.

"(Phillips) decided potential for a medical emergency overrode the concerns about alcohol," Bogart said in the weeks after the incident. "I can't in good conscience question his judgment."

Bogart said he spoke briefly with Phillips and Phillips' supervisor, but did not look further into the "welfare check," as it was labeled in reports. The video is not mentioned in Phillips' report, and Bogart and the State Attorney's Office said they weren't aware of it until late July, after a story appeared in the Tampa Bay Times.

The State Attorney's Office then opened an investigation. Prosecutors requested O'Neill's medical records from the hospital, which were turned over Monday. Court documents for the misdemeanor DUI charge say O'Neill's blood alcohol level was 0.367. Florida law presumes a driver impaired at a level of 0.08.

An arraignment has been set for 1:30 p.m. Sept. 12.

"I've not seen the evidence or what the facts are," said Port Richey Mayor Eloise Taylor, "but government officials are held to a higher standard, so I'm sure that the council will address it."

O'Neill would not comment on the charges against him, saying he will release a statement "when the matter resolves." He previously said that he was experiencing a medical problem that night but declined to say what it was.

He worked for New Port Richey for 35 years before becoming full-time city manager in 2008. The stint was brief as he was forced under a retirement agreement to step down in June 2009. He became Port Richey's city manager in 2011.

O'Neill was charged with DUI in August 1996 and pleaded no contest, court records show. He was sentenced to six months' probation, community service and DUI school.

Times correspondent Robert Napper contributed to this report. Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.

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