TALLAHASSEE — A state trooper who said he was "cutting a break" to a speeding legislator has been fired because he decided instead to falsely cite the lawmaker for not having proof of car insurance.
Trooper Charles Swindle, a six-year veteran of the Florida Highway Patrol, is appealing his March 15 firing and says the state Highway Patrol has an unwritten policy of not issuing tickets to lawmakers who set the patrol's budget, a charge the agency hotly denies but which raises new questions about whether politicians get favored treatment on Florida's highways.
Swindle said he was "trying to be nice" last Nov. 19 when he spared Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, a $250 ticket for speeding on Interstate 10 in Madison as the lawmaker and his wife headed to Tallahassee in a Toyota with a special tag that identified him as a legislator.
Using a radar gun, Swindle clocked McBurney going 87 in a 70 mph zone. He let the lawmaker go with a warning, fining him $10 for lacking proof of insurance, without asking for the proof that was in McBurney's wallet.
"I'm cutting you a break on this one," Swindle told the lawmaker, according to an internal report. Before doing so, the report said, Swindle checked with his superior, Sgt. Gary Dawson, who approved and said: "We ain't gettin' no pay raises anyways."
The report quotes Swindle as telling the sergeant: "I'm going to write (McBurney) a warning and be nice; I'm going to stroke him 'cause I didn't see his insurance card. I'll give him that ticket, warning for speed."
Dawson is on leave and has told superiors he plans to retire.
McBurney, a former prosecutor, insisted he was not driving 87 mph because he set his cruise control to 75 mph, and he did not appreciate the trooper's special treatment. He complained to Col. David Brierton, chief of the Highway Patrol, who ordered the investigation that led to Swindle's dismissal.
"I am concerned that as trooper Swindle acted in such fashion to me, that he would do so to any law-abiding citizen of our state," McBurney wrote.
Swindle's termination letter said he engaged in conduct unbecoming a public employee, and he falsely accused motorists of offenses they did not commit.
"You displayed poor judgment and circumvented the legal process," the letter said.
For decades, troopers have been encouraged to act with discretion, and the patrol has a history of showing deference to legislators, dating back decades to when troopers would serve as chauffeurs for lawmakers.
But Swindle's attorney, Sidney Matthew, says it's deeply rooted in the agency's culture. The lawyer alleged the FHP has an unwritten "quid pro quo" policy of not ticketing politicians, and that young recruits are taught in a state-run academy: "Don't bite the hand that feeds you." Around half of the state's 160 lawmakers opt for legislator license plates, the state says.
"This stinks," Matthew said. "The FHP can't have it both ways, with a policy of discretion to cut breaks to legislators who are speeding and then turn around and fire them."
"Horse hockey," said Julie Jones, executive director of the patrol's parent agency, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. "There is no policy that says that we give anybody a free pass because they're an elected official."
Former Rep. J.C. Planas, R-Miami, said troopers ticketed him several times during his eight years in the House. "If there was any preferential treatment, I certainly did not receive it," Planas said in an email. "In fact, I don't think that FHP liked the Legislature very much because the guy took pleasure in giving me a ticket."
At the Times/Herald's request, the state confirmed a list of legislators who have been ticketed by troopers in the past two years, mostly for speeding.
The list includes Reps. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg; Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello; Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland; Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka (twice); Reggie Fullwood, D-Jacksonville (twice); Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee; and Clovis Watson, D-Miami.
Then there's the case of new state Rep. Mike Clelland, D-Lake Mary.
On the same day Swindle stopped McBurney last November, he also pulled over Clelland, who he also clocked going 87 in a 70 mph zone on I-10 in Madison. Swindle let Clelland off with two citations, for no proof of insurance and no car registration, after noticing a firefighter sticker on Clelland's windshield.
Swindle said he was cutting Clelland a break, "from one firefighter to another."
"I didn't ask him to give me any break," Clelland said. "I remember him saying, 'You're the second legislator I've pulled over today.' "
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.