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FBI asked St. Petersburg police to back off detective probe

ST. PETERSBURG — In March, the city's internal affairs detectives started to take a hard look at one of their own: homicide Detective Anthony Foster.

But then a higher power asked investigators to back off: the FBI.

"We had developed some information regarding Foster ourselves in late March," said police spokesman Mike Puetz.

So at the FBI's request, the police department halted its own inquiry so that it would not impede the federal criminal investigation into one of their own. That FBI investigation led to Foster's arrest Wednesday on federal charges.

St. Petersburg police revealed their foreknowledge of the federal corruption investigation for the first time Thursday, but not before giving several confusing and contradictory accounts of what police officials knew and when they knew it.

Police Chief Chuck Harmon said that confusion was owed to the secrecy the FBI demanded.

"The request was for us to keep it to ourselves," the chief said, "for us to keep it business as usual so as not to alert (Foster) that the investigation was going on."

That criminal investigation led FBI agents to arrest Foster, a 39-year-old veteran detective, on Wednesday on federal charges of wire fraud and interference with commerce by threats.

Foster is accused of working to reduce a confidential informant's sentence in exchange for cash, a flat-screen TV, expensive sneakers for himself and his children, and even groceries paid for with the informant's food stamp benefits, according to the criminal complaint.

Foster was freed by a federal magistrate after signing a $25,000 unsecured bond. He has been suspended without pay by the police department.

In late March or early May,, the FBI first briefed Assistant Chief Dave DeKay, who then briefed the chief. But Harmon himself never actually met with the FBI, contradicting a police statement made earlier Thursday.

Then, two weeks ago, FBI agents visited police headquarters. They went through Foster's personnel files, the chief said, and briefed DeKay and Major Lisa McKinney, who heads internal affairs, about their investigation.

Harmon also did not personally speak to the FBI before the arrest, contradicting another earlier statement. Instead, Harmon said, the FBI called DeKay on Tuesday to tell police they were going to interview Foster on Wednesday.

Harmon said they weren't told ahead of time that Foster was going to be arrested. But they were prepared for it.

Foster was arrested Wednesday afternoon when he visited the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office headquarters inside the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center in Largo. Officers must surrender their weapons when they enter the courthouse, meaning Foster would have been unarmed at the time.

Waiting there with the FBI was DeKay and McKinney. The chief said he wanted them on hand for the interview, and in case Foster was arrested. After the arrest, they told the detective he was suspended without pay and took his police car and weapon.

Now that the FBI has arrested Foster, St. Petersburg has restarted its own internal investigation. Puetz said the department could not reveal what information led them to start looking at Foster in March.

Harmon said he ordered DeKay and Major Mike Kovacsev, who is in charge of the crimes against persons division and oversees the homicide unit, to go through all of Foster's cases — and his confidential informants.

"They will be reviewing all his cases and all the things he's been involved with in the past to see if there's anything we need to deal with," said Harmon.

But Puetz said the department is not aware of any allegations against Foster except for the ones that were investigated by the FBI.

"We're not aware of any other allegations involving Foster ," Puetz said, "or any involving other confidential informants."

Prosecutors and defense attorneys are already weighing the effect of Foster's arrest on the criminal cases he was involved in. So is the police department.

"We know his arrest will call into question his credibility in a court of law," Puetz said. "We don't know how that's going to affect any upcoming trials.

"We just have to wait and see how that affects them."

According to the criminal complaint against Foster, the detective's supervisor also tried to intercede on behalf of the confidential informant who was allegedly being extorted by the suspended detective.

But the police chief believes that supervisor was duped by Foster. Harmon said he believes the criminal allegations go no further than the one detective.

"I don't think anyone else was aware of it," the chief said, "and I don't think anyone else was involved."

FBI asked St. Petersburg police to back off detective probe 06/09/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 10, 2011 10:28am]
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