Until this month, the Pinellas County sheriff's race seemed a typical contest in which challengers target the incumbent's record.
But Sheriff Jim Coats has faded into the background — at least temporarily — as a new battle flares between former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Del Fuoco and the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.
Del Fuoco is running for Pinellas sheriff, but accuses the Manatee agency of leaking a confidential document that wound up on a Web site suggesting he is unfit for public office.
"I'm not going to get run off by any political enemy," said Del Fuoco, who has asked Gov. Charlie Crist to order a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation.
The controversy stems from Del Fuoco's prosecution of six corrupt Manatee deputies in the late '90s and ensuing investigation of then-Sheriff Charlie Wells. The investigation of Wells produced no charges or indictments, and ended because of what appeared to be political pressure, an FDLE agent later said in a sworn statement.
After learning that a sheriff's employee had obtained his home address and other personal information, Del Fuoco in 2003 filed a lawsuit accusing Wells and others of trying to intimidate him. A U.S. magistrate dismissed the suit after the sheriff said Del Fuoco tried to extort $500,000 from him to settle. The magistrate said Del Fuoco, who resigned from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa in 2005, had "defiled the legal process."
Wells filed a complaint against Del Fuoco with the bar in New Jersey, one of the places where he is licensed to practice law. The state's Office of Attorney Ethics cleared Del Fuoco, and in February sent its ruling and other documents to Del Fuoco's home and to Wells at the Sheriff's Office.
Among the material was a recommendation by Maj. Gen. Daniel Wright that Del Fuoco, a colonel in the Army Reserves, be involuntarily removed from the Army for misconduct stemming from his lawsuit against Wells.
The document was stamped "CONFIDENTIAL." An accompanying letter said recipients "may not release this document, or any attachments or exhibits thereto, to anyone outside the attorney disciplinary system."
Yet shortly after Del Fuoco announced his bid for Pinellas sheriff in early April, the document, which has his home address, appeared on a new Internet site, www.jeffdelfuocoforsheriff.com. Though it looks like an official campaign site, it links to public records and newspaper stories that cast Del Fuoco in a negative light.
The Web site "reeks of gutter politics" and is "clearly designed to derail my candidacy for sheriff," Del Fuoco said in his letter to Crist. He also expressed concern that his address was available to people he had prosecuted, including "corrupt law enforcement officers and others with a motive to retaliate against me."
Crist spokesman Thomas Philpot said the governor's legal office is reviewing the letter.
The Army document is still on the Web site, but Del Fuoco's address is now blocked out. A note on the site says it is owned and operated by W.E.B. Affiliates. The site was privately registered, meaning it's almost impossible to tell who created it.
While preparing recent stories on the Wells-Del Fuoco controversy, the St. Petersburg Times received derogatory material about Del Fuoco in packages mailed anonymously from Manatee County. The paper also received a copy of the confidential Army document from Eric Engberg, a retired CBS correspondent who is a neighbor and friend of Wells' brother-in-law, Larry Bahnsen.
The Times did not mention the Army document in its stories because no action had been taken. Del Fuoco remains in the Reserves.
Engberg, reached by phone this week, was asked if he knew anything about the Web site. "I don't want to talk about this," he said. "Goodbye."
Wells, who retired last year, said he had no idea who created the Web site or how Engberg got a confidential document sent only to Wells and Del Fuoco. Wells then accused the Times of illegally obtaining a 2000 federal grand jury transcript in which Manatee Clerk of Court R.B. "Chips" Shore said everyone in the county was "scared to death" of the powerful sheriff.
"You have violated federal law, and you and Del Fuoco can hang onto your hats," Wells angrily told a reporter Monday.
The Times received the transcript anonymously. While there are restrictions on disseminating grand jury information, it is not illegal for a newspaper to receive or publish it. Witnesses can also discuss their own grand jury testimony, as Shore did with the Times.
The current Manatee sheriff, Brad Steube, said his office received the packet addressed to Wells but forwarded it to him without opening it. Steube said his lawyer is still looking into Del Fuoco's claim that the Sheriff's Office is responsible for the confidential Army document being posted on the Web site.
Meanwhile, in Pinellas, Coats has four announced opponents besides Del Fuoco who are trying to deny him a second elected term. He said he had nothing to do with the Del Fuoco Web site. "Obviously when you're in the political season, you hear all these rumors and allegations," Coats said. "I'm doing my best to stay out of that nonsense."
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at email@example.com.