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Was Manatee sheriff a target of prosecution or persecution?

BRADENTON — They were known as the Delta Squad, an elite group of Manatee County sheriff's deputies once praised for ridding the streets of crack cocaine. But their reputation would tarnish. ¶ A federal investigation showed that members of the narcotics unit lied on search warrants, gave crack cocaine to helpful informants and planted evidence. Six officers pleaded guilty to federal charges and were sentenced to prison. ¶ Sheriff Charlie Wells said they were rogue cops acting on their own. The lead federal prosecutor, Jeffrey Del Fuoco, wasn't so sure.

"This seemed to be a fairly entrenched, okay way of doing things," Del Fuoco told a reporter in 2000. "It just seems to me that this kind of network doesn't spring up overnight."

At the time — the final year of a Democratic presidential administration — Del Fuoco's supervisors apparently agreed. Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill gave Del Fuoco a glowing evaluation, saying he "was able to demonstrate the legitimacy of the investigation and the fact that the corruption was rampant."

On May 31, 2000, O'Neill signed a form initiating a criminal investigation into "No. 13, a public official" and assigned the case to Del Fuoco.

No. 13 was Sheriff Charlie Wells.

Before the year was out, George W. Bush was elected president, ushering in a Republican administration. And before long, the prosecutor was as much of a target as the well-connected Republican sheriff.

Rags to serious riches

In 23 years in office, Charlie Wells became the most powerful figure in Manatee County as it bloomed into a popular bedroom community for many who work in Tampa and St. Petersburg. By the time he retired a year ago this week, Wells was among the most influential of the state's 67 sheriffs. And by far the richest.

His 2007 financial disclosure statement showed a net worth of $8-million — a long way from his days as a $425-a-month trooper with the Florida Highway Patrol.

Trooper Wells had his highs and lows. In 1972, he rescued four people from a burning car. Eight years later, an off-duty Wells, with "a strong odor" of alcohol on his breath, had a verbal run-in with a St. Petersburg police officer after a motorist said Wells and another person threw a beer can at him and tried to run him off the road.

Wells drew a three-day unpaid suspension, resigned in 1981 and went to work as an investigator for the State Attorney's Office in Bradenton. He soon got the job of Bradenton police chief.

"He was a big, good-looking boy," then-Mayor Bill Evers says of the still-muscular Wells. "He was great with PR, but he had difficulty staying in his budget."

Wells won election as sheriff in 1984. There were more controversies — accusations he illegally tapped employee phone calls, a nude photo his wife took as a joke — but he also shaped a reputation as one of Florida's most innovative lawmen.

He was among the main forces behind STOP, Stop Turning Out Prisoners, that led to a 1995 law requiring that convicts serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. He launched the state's first boot camp for juvenile offenders. To save money on inmate food costs, the Sheriff's Office began raising chickens and cows.

Wells' proactive approach impressed Jeb Bush, who named the sheriff to his transition team and to key advisory panels after being elected governor in 1998. Wells' friendship with Bush was reflected in the names of the department's dogs.

Jeb and George.

An illegal hookup?

While his crime-fighting initiatives drew acclaim, Wells was dogged by allegations he mixed public and private business. Among them: that his wife had illegal access to confidential law enforcement information.

Leslie Wells and partner Paul Sharff owned a real estate company, Gold Star, that handled rentals for a Bradenton apartment complex. Among those who worked in their office was real estate agent Judy Wagar.

In 1999, she told agents for the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that Leslie Wells and Sharff did criminal background checks on prospective tenants by accessing the national and Florida crime information centers through a computer connection in their office.

With rare exceptions, using NCIC and FCIC for anything but legitimate law enforcement purposes is a federal crime that can cost an agency its access to the systems.

Wagar told agents she saw a computer screen in the realty office open with the logo of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office. "(Leslie) Wells and Sharff told her that was how they obtained an applicant's criminal history," an FDLE report said.

According to Wagar, the two charged $30 for the background checks, which the applicant was told would be done by an outside company. Instead, Leslie Wells and her partner did the checks through the NCIC/FCIC system and pocketed the money, said Wagar, who declined to be interviewed for this story.

Wells says he never gave his wife access to the system. He showed the St. Petersburg Times a 1999 FDLE audit that spot-checked the Sheriff's Office's use of NCIC/FCIC and found only minor issues. Sharff and Leslie Wells say that all background checks were done by a tenant verification bureau and that Wagar mistook the logo of Gold Star Realty for the sheriff's logo.

After Wagar spoke to authorities, Leslie Wells complained to the Sheriff's Office that Wagar was leaving harassing phone messages in which she claimed she was owed a commission.

In their report, FBI and FDLE agents described Wagar as a credible witness who didn't have any agenda except for being "upset that Wells' and Sharff's political and professional associations allowed them access to sensitive information that other business owners do not have."

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa opened a case in 1999 against Sharff and Leslie Wells, but it went nowhere.

"The FBI basically indicated FDLE would have to staff the investigation and no action taken by FDLE," a supervisor in the U.S. Attorney's Office wrote.

"Case is stale and indications are that Wells was alerted to the problem and is no longer breaking the law in this fashion."

A PR nightmare

In 2000, federal investigators learned of another troubling allegation: that the Manatee Sheriff's Office was borrowing money illegally, in a way that threatened the borrowing ability of the entire county.

Unbeknownst to county officials, Wells entered into several lease-purchase contracts between 1997 and 2000. In all, the Sheriff's Office borrowed $8.5-million from out-of-state banks, using patrol cars and other property it already owned as collateral.

The transactions were legally akin to bond issues, which must be approved by referendum or by the County Commission. The failure to get such approval could have hurt the county's good credit rating and made it harder to borrow for other purposes.

"The county bond attorney said it was totally wrong," says R.B. "Chips" Shore, Manatee's clerk of court and comptroller. "I had no idea (Wells) was doing this and neither did the County Commission because he gave so little information in his budget."

Wells says the money was used to buy more equipment, and that he assumed the contracts were legal because his lawyer said they were. However, he acknowledges the department's bookkeeping was "embarrassing" for a time, possibly because the finance director was in declining health. He later died.

Even after auditors found the contracts in 2000, Shore says there was no interest in investigating how county officials had been kept in the dark so many years.

"At that point, no one wanted to see the county get into a public relations nightmare with the sheriff," Shore says. "We just wanted to get him out of it."

The County Commission authorized a check for $1,046,000 to pay off the final loan and get the sheriff's budget back in balance. Wells promised in writing that "all future capital lease obligations (if any) will be properly coordinated with the Board of County Commissioners."

Wells says any mistakes made were innocent ones.

"I do know nothing was ever missing, there were never any shortages at the Sheriff's Office during my administration. Were there financial problems? Yes. Did it have any thing to do with missing money? No.

"When this came to my attention, you're damn right I was concerned, and I didn't run from the problem."

'Scared to death'

While county officials quietly grappled with the leases, the media in late 2000 focused on the notorious Delta Squad and former member David Living­ston. His work history included keeping items seized in a drug bust and letting a prostitute fondle him while on duty.

"Some sheriff's officials believe that federal prosecutors are putting pressure on Livingston in a last-ditch effort to uncover any corruption that hasn't already surfaced," the Sarasota-Herald Tribune reported.

Livingston was never charged with a crime. But a federal grand jury in Tampa was hearing from someone far more important — Shore, the clerk of court.

Under questioning by Del Fuoco, the prosecutor assigned the case of "No. 13," Shore testified about matters involving Wells himself.

"Let me start off by saying, the sheriff of Manatee County has always gotten whatever he asked for budgetwise," Shore told jurors. "It's an extremely high budget, and for a long time, being the chief financial officer, I have not been able to figure out what he does with all of it."

Shore described the lease-purchase transactions. He talked of concerns that some of the money from the sheriff's cattle operation was not properly accounted for. And he told grand jurors that the department's books "are kept so badly" it was difficult to make sense of them, not that anyone was eager to delve too deeply.

"The sheriff of Manatee County is a very powerful person, and everyone is scared to death of him," Shore testified. "Anybody you talk to that has started looking at him always quits."

Shore says Wells knew he had talked to the grand jury "because his deputies followed me up there."

Wells denies that, but a few weeks after Shore's appearance, the sheriff requested a meeting with then-U.S. Attorney Donna Bucella. In a sworn statement he gave in 2004, Wells said he had "offered to cooperate" in regard to the leases. He said he had also complained to Bucella about the "slow pace" of the investigation and the "adverse effect" it was having on law enforcement in Manatee County.

Nonetheless, the investigation chugged on.

Republicans move in

George W. Bush took office in January 2001, and Bucella resigned soon afterward. In March 2002, Bush named her replacement — Jacksonville lawyer Paul Perez, a Republican.

Perez had been in office just a few months when he went to see Wells.

"During the conversation he (Perez) asked if he could provide assistance to my office," Wells said in his sworn statement in a lawsuit. "I expressed to him my opinion that Mr. Del Fuoco needed to be closely supervised."

Perez says the meeting was one of many he held to get acquainted with area law enforcement agencies. He says he doesn't recall Del Fuoco's name coming up.

"I can't speak for what Charlie's interpretation of that meeting was, but it makes perfect sense that it was part of my meet-and-greets," Perez recently told the Times.

Given the history of investigation into the Sheriff's Office, Perez's visit put him in a position where it could have appeared he was being influenced by Wells, an expert on legal ethics says.

"There's a danger of what the sheriff might say even if it's not a conversation the U.S. attorney wants to have," says Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law.

"There may be no fire, just smoke, but people see smoke, and you can undermine public confidence."

The mystery vehicle

By 2002, though still working on the sheriff's case, Del Fuoco was devoting most of his time to an investigation of the Plant City Police Department that led to the convictions of three officers. FDLE agents learned that one officer had been instructed to "dig up dirt" on Del Fuoco to get him pulled from the case.

Late that summer, neighbors told Del Fuoco's wife, Carla, that they had seen a black vehicle with tinted windows parked for three days near the couple's north Pinellas home. When one neighbor tried to get a closer look at the tag, the occupant flashed a badge and identified himself as a private investigator but refused to give his name.

"It made my blood run cold," remembers Carla Del Fuoco, who was pregnant at the time.

Del Fuoco assumed he was under surveillance by someone from Plant City. Instead, FDLE agents discovered, it was a Manatee sheriff's employee who had used the tag numbers of Del Fuoco and his ex-wife to get home addresses and other personal information from the computerized Florida Crime Information Center.

The employee, Lola Foy, had run the tags on June 6, 2001 — a day after Del Fuoco was quoted as saying the investigation into the Sheriff's Office would continue. Foy told the FDLE she couldn't remember who wanted the tag information but assumed it was someone from the narcotics unit — the same unit whose rogue members Del Fuoco had prosecuted.

Del Fuoco e-mailed Perez, the new U.S. attorney. "I am most concerned for the welfare of my family," he wrote.

Del Fuoco said he repeatedly asked for protection but nothing happened. At his own expense, he installed a home alarm system.

'Terrified'

On Jan. 31, 2003, Del Fuoco filed a lawsuit against Wells and Lola Foy, later adding two deputies. The suit accused them of illegally accessing law enforcement data banks to "harm, injure and harass" Del Fuoco and his family in retaliation for his prosecutions of Delta Squad members.

The suit helped poison Del Fuoco's relations with supervisors, who felt he had acted rashly. But he told reporters he had to make his concerns public because the Justice Department was doing nothing to protect his family.

The lawsuit elicited more allegations.

In March 2003, Del Fuoco got a call from a man who identified himself only as a Manatee deputy and said he knew who had requested the tag runs.

"Do I think these people that are doing this s--- would shoot somebody in the head?" the caller warned. '"Abso-bloody-lutely. That's why I've decided to come forward."

The anonymous caller later was identified as Joe Bernhard, a sergeant in the same division as the Delta Squad. In a recent interview with the Times, Bernhard said he phoned Del Fuoco because "in my opinion I truly felt there was something terribly wrong."

"He's a prosecuting attorney, and he should have some kind of protection," Bernhard says. "If I was in Jeff's position, I absolutely would have been terrified for my life and my family's life.

"Never in my career have I known of a case where an agency under investigation runs the tag of someone in another agency who's investigating them and nothing comes of it."

Bernhard's warnings especially unnerved Carla Del Fuoco, pregnant again after a miscarriage she blamed on stress. "After Joe Bernhard turned up, that's when I really got afraid," she says.

Carla Del Fuoco says it took numerous calls and several months before a U.S. marshal finally did an electronic sweep of their home. A security expert in the Justice Department brushed off her concerns.

"He said, 'Lady, what do you want me to do? I'm in Washington.' "

The big bat

Partly as a result of Del Fuoco's lawsuit, the U.S. Attorney's Office received more allegations involving the Manatee Sheriff's Office. But in May 2003, Del Fuoco was transferred from the criminal to the civil division, a move he considered a demotion.

FDLE Agent Mark Flint, who had been working with Del Fuoco, was teamed with another prosecutor and continued to investigate.

A veteran agent who had once worked for the sheriff's department, Flint was well regarded by the U.S. Attorney's Office. When he retired last year, it honored him for his "outstanding accomplishments in the investigation of public corruption cases" from 1984 to 2007.

Wells, though, often said Flint had a "personal ax to grind" against him.

Flint declined to speak to the Times. In an affidavit last year, he said that "for the safety" of Del Fuoco and his family "the investigation should have been taken to its logical end" — determining who in the Sheriff's Office wanted the personal information on Del Fuoco and his ex-wife.

But when the second prosecutor was reassigned, Flint's affidavit said, the FDLE "was without the prosecutive support to continue the investigation, including issuance of subpoenas."

On Oct. 30, 2003, Flint and his supervisor met with Perez's first assistant, James Klindt, to see how the other allegations involving the Sheriff's Office would be handled from there on.

According to Flint's affidavit, Klindt said he had conferred with Perez and "as far as the elected agency head (Wells) was concerned & he swings a big bat and there would be no further investigations targeting him."

The affidavit said Klindt's meaning seemed clear: "The elected official had considerable political influence."

Klindt, now a federal magistrate in Jacksonville, did not return a reporter's calls.

Perez, who resigned last year to work for a bank, said he would not comment "on anything having to do with Mr. Del Fuoco," including the prosecutor's safety concerns and allegations the Justice Department did little to protect him.

Within weeks of the Oct. 30, 2003, meeting, Perez applied for a federal judgeship. Gov. Bush was part of the nominating process in which names were sent to his brother, the president.

In an e-mail to the Times, Jeb Bush said of Wells: "I consider him a friend and believe he is a fine man." Bush said he never talked to anyone about investigations of the Sheriff's Office, though "I vaguely remember Sheriff Wells speaking about an FDLE agent that had a grudge against him."

Chips Shore, the Manatee clerk of court who appeared before the grand jury, still thinks there were issues that warranted further investigation at the time, if only to clear the air.

Does Shore think Wells' political ties helped him avoid further scrutiny? "Absolutely."

'Fixated' on Wells?

The investigation into the Manatee County Sheriff's Office — which once drew praise for bringing corrupt cops to justice — degenerated into a dizzying cycle of complaints and counterclaims.

Del Fuoco resigned in August 2005. He had a bitter falling out with former friend and supervisor Robert O'Neill, who in media reports and a deposition said Del Fuoco had become so "fixated" on Wells that he "went off the deep end."

Del Fuoco denied any mental problems and filed complaints that accused O'Neill of trying to undermine the Manatee and Plant City investigations. O'Neill was cleared, and this past October he became interim U.S. attorney for Florida's Middle District. O'Neill did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2004, Del Fuoco dropped Wells from his lawsuit after a meeting in which the sheriff accused the prosecutor of trying to extort $500,000 from him in exchange for not reporting alleged campaign violations.

U.S. Magistrate Thomas Wilson ruled that Del Fuoco acted in "bad faith" and sanctioned him by ordering him to pay Wells $167,000 in legal fees. He also dismissed the case against the remaining defendants, saying Del Fuoco had "defiled the judicial process" and made "baseless" claims of retaliation.

Wilson based his rulings in part on gas receipts and other records showing the black vehicle seen near Del Fuoco's home could not have been the Manatee sheriff's surveillance vehicle because it was driven only 98 miles during that time period — not enough to get to north Pinellas and back.

The magistrate's findings gave fodder to critics who said Del Fuoco was an overzealous prosecutor out to get Wells. But left unanswered were the three key questions that had prompted the lawsuit in the first place: Who had requested the personal information on Del Fuoco and his family, and why? And who was the "private investigator" who refused to identify himself to a neighbor?

Wells says he doesn't know. Had it been someone in the Sheriff's Office, "they would have been fired," he says.

In April, Wells retired with more than a year left on his term. He says he would have retired sooner, but "I was not going to let someone like Mr. Del Fuoco think he was going to run me out of office."

Gov. Charlie Crist called Wells "a dear friend" and appointed his handpicked successor, Brad Steube, to serve the rest of his term.

In September, Del Fuoco, Wells and Steube, representing the Sheriff's Office, reached a final settlement in which they dropped all claims against one another, including legal fees. They agreed not to "disparage" or "intentionally harm" one another.

The Wells-Del Fuoco saga now rests with the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, which is investigating allegations that the Justice Department became excessively politicized when Republican Alberto Gonzales was attorney general.

"This is something the committee continues to look at," says Erica Chabot, press secretary to Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "The counsel for Sen. Leahy is aware of this."

The legacy

The Del Fuocos have a 2-year-old son. Del Fuoco, 54, does fraud examinations and consultations, but business has been slow.

For Charlie and Leslie Wells, business is brisk.

She recently opened a new real estate office and is one of the investors in a new bank in Parrish, near the upscale Foxbrook community she developed. Before leaving office, Bush appointed her to the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority board.

Wells started a private investigations firm staffed with former deputies. He does marketing and other work for Manatee County Rural Health Services and is a consultant to Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota. He also has done security and consulting work for the Atlantis casino resort in the Bahamas.

His legacy continues in the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.

Soon after becoming sheriff, Steube hired Wells' son Rick, who had been a $55,000-a-year Highway Patrol trooper. Rick Wells moved into the Sheriff's Office with the rank of lieutenant — jumping over others in line for promotion — and took the $79,200-a-year job of crime prevention officer.

To many in Manatee County, it wouldn't be a surprise if one day Rick Wells were to run for sheriff.

About the stories

In preparing these stories, the Times reviewed thousands of pages of records and interviewed dozens of people.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

Was Manatee sheriff a target of prosecution or persecution? 03/29/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 4, 2008 5:19pm]

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