TALLAHASSEE — A state trooper fired because he "cut breaks" to two speeding legislators got a break of his own Monday when a hearing officer recommended that he get his job back.
Charles Swindle deserves no more than a three-week unpaid suspension, hearing officer Gregg Riley Morton ruled.
"Trooper Swindle was in a no-win situation, having pulled over two legislators for speeding," Morton wrote.
Going easy on the two lawmakers was "a mistake," Morton said, but Swindle was simply following an unwritten policy at the Florida Highway Patrol that troopers should be lenient with legislators, who decide every year whether troopers get raises.
"Swindle's particular actions in this case were heavily influenced by the Agency's unwritten policy toward traffic stops involving legislators," Morton wrote in his 22-page decision. "Under these circumstances, the Agency bears some responsibility for Swindle's actions, and, therefore, I regard his violations as less severe than they might otherwise be viewed."
Swindle wrote the tickets one after the other on Nov. 19 as the lawmakers drove on Interstate 10 to Tallahassee for swearing-in ceremonies.
Swindle said each lawmaker was going 87 miles per hour in a 70 mph zone. But rather than write them costly speeding tickets, the trooper cited Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, for having no proof of insurance and Rep. Mike Clelland, D-Lake Mary, for no proof of insurance and no vehicle registration.
Both men had the documents and paid the fines, but McBurney criticized the trooper's actions in a letter to FHP Col. David Brierton, who ordered an internal investigation that led to Swindle's firing from the $36,000-a-year job.
State highway safety chief Julie Jones said she was disappointed by the ruling.
"The hearing officer either missed or did not acknowledge the higher standard that we should hold law enforcement officers to," Jones said. "When you make false accusations, how do you continue in a job where you have to swear that what you put on paper is the truth?"
Morton, a hearing officer at the Public Employees Relations Commission, said a key element in the case was sworn testimony from former troopers who said the leniency policy was well-established.
"It's taught at the academy," said former FHP Sgt. Gary Dawson, who approved of Swindle's actions that day and retired soon afterward, ending a 22-year career. "We had a colonel in one of the troop meetings who wrote, 'Thou Shalt Not Write Your Legislator.' "
Several other current or former troopers gave similar testimony at the May 29 hearing, and Sandra Coulter, the attorney for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, called no witnesses to rebut them.
"The hearing officer had no choice, other than to believe every witness I put on," said Swindle's attorney, Sidney Matthew. "They never took the stand to say, 'It ain't so.' "
Morton agreed with the state that Swindle violated two agency rules by writing tickets for violations that did not occur. But he noted that Swindle was an "accomplished and otherwise admirable employee" who deserved a lesser punishment.
The decision is a setback for the highway safety agency, which is under the direction of Gov. Rick Scott and the three elected Cabinet members. Jones said last week that troopers are taught to use discretion, but she denied knowledge of an unwritten policy toward lawmakers.
Swindle, 30, of Perry was fired March 15 after 6½ years as a trooper, and his case became an online sensation, with people voicing sympathy for him and casting McBurney as the bad guy for being ungrateful. McBurney said Monday he never asked that Swindle be fired and only voiced concern that he was ticketed for a nonexistent violation.
"I am content with the outcome," McBurney said.
Morton's findings must be ratified by the three Public Employees Relations Commission members. One, Mike Hogan, is a former legislator from Jacksonville.
Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.