NEW PORT RICHEY — Just before midnight on New Year's Eve, a brawl erupted in the Palm Lake Terrace neighborhood and spilled into the yard of a private home.
The homeowner, sensing things might get out of hand, flashed a gold star badge.
Terry Ettel isn't a law enforcement officer. He's one of Sheriff Bob White's honorary deputies, a role that carries no arrest power.
Some of the people in the fight told investigators that Ettel said "I'm a cop" as he held up his badge, a report says. Some didn't mention that Ettel said those words.
It's because of that discrepancy that sheriff's investigators decided not to arrest Ettel on a charge of impersonating a law enforcement officer, a third degree felony in Florida.
"He admitted that he flashed his badge," Sheriff's Office spokesman Kevin Doll said. "I think the point of unfounding it was due to the conflicting witness statements on what he said."
One of White's political opponents, Robert Sullivan, has been assailing the honorary deputy program as nothing more than a political tool. He says the "flash badges" the honorary deputies carry are an affront to real law enforcement officers.
He held up the Ettel incident as Exhibit A.
"You're putting these badges in the hands of folks that have not had the training of a law enforcement officer," he said.
He questioned the credentials of a few more honorary deputies:
Lynn D. Stewart, founder of the Hooter's restaurant chain, faced federal tax evasion charges in 2005. His three-week trial ended in a mistrial.
Neil Summers Sr., a gun shop owner in east Pasco, pleaded to tax evasion charges but is not a felon.
Summers' business, Doll said, has donated generously to the Sheriff's Shootout, which benefits charity.
Two other honorary deputies, both medical doctors, have faced accusations by their patients of improper conduct.
"We're assuming ... that the people the sheriff is giving these badges to are of the highest ethical fiber and are pillars of the community," Sullivan said. "The way (the program) seems to be running, I see absolutely nothing good coming of this other than continued contributions to the sheriff's re-election campaign."
Campaign reports show that about half of White's 100 or so honorary deputies, and their families and businesses, have given contributions to White's re-election campaign totaling more than $30,000.
The figures were similar in his 2004 campaign.
The sheriff says he chooses his honorees for their service to the community and their ability to respond in a crisis — and nothing more.
White handled the Ettel matter by sending a sergeant out to counsel Ettel, "and remind him that improper use of that badge can have him removed from the program," Doll said.
Bob Focht, who recently retired from the Public Defender's Office, said based on the circumstances and the law, he thinks the New Year's Eve incident was handled properly.
The statute says someone is guilty of impersonation who pretends to be an officer and "takes upon himself or herself to act as such, or to require any other person to aid or assist him or her in a matter pertaining to the duty of any such officer."
"Holding up the badge (and saying) 'I'm a cop.' That's step one. Something else has to happen," Focht said. "You have to cause somebody to do something, and it doesn't sound like that happened."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6245.