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Police chief suggests influence in handling of Port Richey city manager's traffic stop

NEW PORT RICHEY — On Friday morning, a day after state prosecutors filed a DUI charge against Port Richey City Manager Tom O'Neill, New Port Richey police Chief Kim Bogart addressed what happened the night authorities found O'Neill asleep behind the wheel of his SUV.

The investigation might have gone differently, Bogart said, had Port Richey police Chief Dave Brown — a subordinate to O'Neill — not shown up at the scene.

Just before midnight on July 13, a New Port Richey officer found O'Neill idling in the middle of the street, apparently asleep at the wheel. The officer, Cpl. William Phillips, requested paramedics to come check on O'Neill. About 45 minutes passed before emergency workers could waken him and get him out of the SUV.

Before they put O'Neill in an ambulance, Phillips made notes pointing toward DUI: that O'Neill had watery bloodshot eyes, a dazed expression, slurred speech and reeked of alcohol.

By then, Brown was on the scene.

"(Brown) didn't give direction to my officer to handle the case any differently. But just the chief's presence there, I believe, was a degree of an influence," Bogart said, noting that the chief was one of the people seen in a video of the traffic stop, leaning into O'Neill's driver's window and trying to wake him.

"(Phillips) clearly was trying to proceed with a DUI investigation," Bogart said Friday. "He ultimately moved Mr. O'Neill to the back of the vehicle to conduct a field sobriety test. And did all of those things that would truly indicate proceeding with that."

The State Attorney's Office subpoenaed O'Neill's medical records from Northbay Hospital and found he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.367 — more than four times the level at which state law presumes a driver is impaired.

Bogart said he had seen a level so high only once or twice in his time working road patrol years ago.

Brown could not be reached for comment Friday.

In an earlier interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Brown said he has been friends with O'Neill since January 2012, when O'Neill came to work for the city.

Brown's Lt. Don Young spoke for him about that night and said that at the scene Brown told officers his friend takes medication and said nothing else.

"The chief tells me he did not exert any influence on New Port Richey officers," Young said last month, "and I believe him."

Between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. July 14, Brown said previously, he drove to the hospital to pick up O'Neill.

"He had no other way of getting home," Brown said. "I was helping a friend."

Contact Alex Orlando at aorlando@tampabay.com or (727)869-6247.

Police chief suggests influence in handling of Port Richey city manager's traffic stop 08/30/13 [Last modified: Saturday, August 31, 2013 12:19am]
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