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Brooksville prostitution sting is criticized

BROOKSVILLE — The Brooksville Police Department's much-touted undercover prostitution sting took a hit in court last month as defense attorneys questioned the legality of the officer's methods.

More intense heat is expected in the coming weeks as the remaining 20-plus cases move closer to conclusion, either at trial or through plea deals. But there is one little-noted but no-less alarming claim that remains unanswered, involving a possible financial motive for the police sting.

A controversial theory has been promoted by several of the defense attorneys for the 32 men arrested in the week-long September operation. While challenging the arrests, they also are objecting to the fees the police have charged their clients.

"The true reason behind this (sting) is just the cash," Assistant Public Defender Laura Drake told a jury in one case.

Documents obtained by the St. Petersburg Times add weight to some of those claims while refuting others. The records show:

• Police officers appear to have violated the agency's impoundment policy by driving the arrested men's vehicles to the police station themselves instead of calling a tow truck.

• The department made $4,400 by charging 22 of the men $200 each to retrieve their vehicles.

• The $200 fee is outlined in documents as being "in accordance with City Ordinance No. 765." But that ordinance was not approved by the City Council until Oct. 6, nearly a month after the sting.

• The department charged 30 defendants a total of $4,040 to cover the cost of the investigation, billing for 60 administrative hours and more than 110 manpower hours.

• The amounts charged to each defendant vary and include a number of errors, either in calculating the time spent on the investigation or the total cost.

The documents, received through a public records request, help answer outstanding questions but still don't provide the whole picture. Additional details are difficult to discern because police Chief George Turner refused to discuss his department's operation.

The chief recently hung up the phone on a Times reporter. An immediate call back brought this comment: "I'm not answering any questions regarding those cases," Turner said.

Asked why not, he said, "I'm just not doing it."

Policy says call tow truck; officers didn't

The only official information came from the department's officers when they testified in court late last month, and even that testimony is contradictory on some points.

On the impoundment policy, Officer Shawn Terry said he drove the vehicles per the operational plan and at the direction of Lt. Rick Hankins.

Yet, the department's policy states "a rotation wrecker will be called if towing is required" after arresting a driver. It does not permit officers to drive the vehicles.

Terry said it was a matter of convenience and necessity for an ongoing sting. "We actually drove the vehicles back to the Police Department because (the sting's location) is right across the street from the Police Department," he told the court.

Turner, by not commenting, would not affirm this information or elaborate on who gave the authorization to go against department policy in this operation.

The Hernando County Sheriff's Office and Florida Highway Patrol adhere to similar policies against allowing officers to drive suspect's vehicles.

"If the troopers were to drive a suspect's vehicle to the station, then they would have to be insured as well, and that is a cost and liability situation that is completely impractical," said FHP spokesman Sgt. Steve Gaskins.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Sgt. Donna Black said the agency sometimes will drive a suspect's vehicle short distances during operation, but a tow service is still called to complete the removal.

Questions related to the $200 fee, charged in accordance with a city ordinance dated after the sting, remains unresolved. The city's attorney, George Angeladis, said a $200 fee is the long-standing charge but he could not provide details.

As for the cost of investigation, it is still being disputed by most of the men arrested. The cost per case ranges from $55 in one case to $155 in a dozen others.

In court, Drake, the public defender, elicited testimony from Terry, who completed most the forms, and Officer Krystal Nix, the undercover officer, that indicated discrepancies in how long officers spent on each case.

Terry testified the costs are likely underestimated, meaning the true cost of the investigation is still unknown. "They are not dead-on accurate," he told the court.

Turner, again, would not talk about these issues. Hours after hanging up on a reporter, he sent an e-mail explaining he could not discuss it because some cases are ongoing, even though not all the questions involved open cases. He did note that the arrests have led to two convictions and a number of plea deals.

Officials question Turner's behavior

The chief's behavior dismayed City Council member Joe Bernardini, who was just appointed mayor. Bernardini apologized on behalf of Turner and said he would discuss the matter with the city manager.

"Even if I don't like you," he said, "you have a right to ask questions."

Bernardini, a former Brooksville police officer and reserve sheriff's deputy, said the sting could have been more methodical and the officers better prepared for trial.

"Well, we are a young department," he said. "I hope if we do another one we dot all our I's and cross all our T's."

Still, he adamantly defended the department and the operation's intent. "Even if we don't get a conviction, we sent a clear message that we aren't going to put up with (prostitution)," he said.

Like Bernardini, council members Lara Bradburn and David Pugh Jr. said they supported the sting and dismissed defense attorney's suggestions that it was a de facto fundraiser.

Jennene Norman-Vacha, the city manager, also apologized for Turner's demeanor. "There's no room for that," she said.

Towing under Turner investigated in N.Y.

For Turner, this is not the first time a tow policy has become an issue under his watch as a police official. The previous matter occurred in Ulster, N.Y., where he spent 10 years and last served as captain, or second-in-command, until his retirement in January 2000.

The New York State Commission of Investigation conducted an inquiry into allegations that the Ulster department allowed officers to benefit from the tow rotation program. Specifically, it targeted a lieutenant who owned two towing businesses that received more than its fair share of city towing work.

The investigation was conducted after Turner had left the department but it focused on the time period when he served as a top police official.

The report, issued in September 2003, identifies Turner as the person in charge of the tow rotation list. Turner denied this, but investigators confirmed it with testimony from Ulster Police Chief Dan Miller. Turner was never interviewed as part of that inquiry.

The commission concluded that the Police Department's tow procedures gave "an appearance of impropriety and create a potential for abuse."

At the mention of the investigation in another interview, Turner became irate.

"I wasn't there, and it had nothing to do with me," he said. "I'm not threatening you … but if you start writing stuff that is not true, that defames me, I'm going to get a lawyer."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Brooksville prostitution sting is criticized 12/06/08 [Last modified: Sunday, December 14, 2008 1:17pm]

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