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Pinellas sheriff says narcotics division grew to be 'too loose an operation'

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says the office's narcotics division became "too loose an operation," which led him to launch internal investigations of nine employees, including one who might be criminally prosecuted.

In that case, a detective sought reimbursement for $200 paid to a confidential informant, but Gualtieri said "he never paid the informant." The detective resigned but the sheriff said, "we're still going to pursue the criminal case for the theft."

Gualtieri said the allegation would be forwarded to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, which decides whether to file charges in criminal cases.

Of the nine deputies investigated, five were disciplined, complaints against two were ruled unfounded, and complaints against two others are pending.

This is the same unit that has been criticized recently by defense lawyers for tactics in conducting surveillance of customers of a hydroponics store.

Gualtieri became sheriff four months ago, after former Sheriff Jim Coats decided to retire, and he is running for re-election to the position later this year.

In explaining his efforts to correct problems in the narcotics division, he stressed that all of the allegations occurred "prior to me taking office."

Before he became sheriff, Gualtieri was chief deputy, the number two person in charge. He said his concerns about the narcotics division began before he became sheriff.

Overall, he said, it became clear that "quite honestly, we had a captain out there that wasn't taking care of business. … The supervision out there was lacking."

Coats said on Friday that when he left, "I felt that we had some issues, I had some concerns," about the narcotics division as well. "We were going to address some staff changes. Some were made during my tenure, and some were made after I left."

Gualtieri said things have improved since the captain retired in October and a sergeant was reassigned.

He also said he has scheduled an "all hands" meeting in the narcotics division for Tuesday to talk about his expectations, including new constitutional law training.

Gualtieri said the confidential informant case involved a detective named Jeffrey McConaughey, who was assigned to a Drug Enforcement Administration task force.

Gualtieri said the detective filled out paperwork indicating he paid a Miami informant $200 with Pinellas County funds.

When a detective pays a confidential informant, regulations require that another deputy witness it. But the other deputy's name on the paperwork was believed to be forged, Gualtieri said. And the confidential informant later complained to police that he had never been paid, Gualtieri said.

McConaughey could not be reached Friday.

As a result of this case, Gualtieri said he ordered a "top to bottom audit" of confidential informant payments, which led to some other investigations.

Gualtieri said the other narcotics division cases included:

• Deputy Jason Bahret paid a confidential informant money last August without having another deputy witness the transaction as required. He did get another deputy to sign the payment receipt later, as though he had witnessed it, according to the investigation. He was suspended for five days.

• Deputy Michael Papamichael was the deputy who signed Bahret's receipt after the fact. He was suspended for five days.

• Deputy Brian Beery put Sheriff's Office GPS tracking devices on "your personal vehicles used primarily by other family members without having authorization or a need for police action." He was given a letter of reprimand.

• In another case previously reported by the Tampa Bay Times, Sgt. Chris Taylor ordered the erasure of a DVR hard drive seized in a marijuana grow house bust. He had told investigators he gave the order because the hard drive showed the faces of undercover detectives, which he did not want to become public. But an attorney for a defendant in the case has said he believes the hard drive would have showed deputies trespassing onto his client's property. Taylor was given a five-day suspension.

Earlier this week, Gualtieri said he was "appalled" when the Times showed him a court deposition in which a narcotics detective acknowledged wearing a Progress Energy uniform and going onto someone's property without a search warrant. Previous stories described narcotics deputies' extensive surveillance of a hydroponics store in Largo and how the deputies purported to smell marijuana plants from the outside of houses they were investigating.

Gualtieri said he believes marijuana grow houses should not be the main focus of the narcotics division.

"Our most significant priority from a drug enforcement perspective is the prescription drug overdose epidemic," he said.

Times staff writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8232.

Pinellas sheriff says narcotics division grew to be 'too loose an operation' 03/02/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 2, 2012 11:57pm]

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