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More questions arise over tactics by Pinellas sheriff's narcotics unit

LARGO — Three Pinellas narcotics detectives improperly and routinely accessed Progress Energy billing records for years, then misled the State Attorney's Office to cover their tracks, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri acknowledged Friday.

The arrangement had "the air of deceit,'' he said, and could weaken the state's ability to prosecute the drug cases involved.

Because of these and other allegations, Gualtieri launched six new internal affairs investigations of the narcotics division this week, in addition to the nine he revealed a week ago.

Two of the detectives who accessed Progress Energy records — Paul Giovannoni and Michael Sciarrino — will be moved from narcotics to the patrol division effective Sunday and be stripped of their corporal status, Gualtieri said. The third detective, Michael Papamichael, had already moved out of the unit. Sgt. Ron Wehr, a narcotics supervisor, also has been reassigned.

"It appears to be conduct similar to the conduct reported last week,'' Gualtieri said. "A lot of police procedures not followed or shortcuts taken.''

Giovannoni, Sciarrino and Wehr declined to comment through a sheriff's spokeswoman.

The Progress Energy revelations, which involve bogus subpoena requests to the State Attorney's Office, represent another black mark for officers who installed a surveillance camera outside a Largo hydroponics store more than two years ago, wrote down auto tag numbers of customers, then tried to build cases against suspected indoor marijuana farmers.

The camera outside Simply Hydroponics came down last fall and Gualtieri has said he has refocused the narcotics division's energies to pain pills, heroin and other dangerous drugs.

But with some of those 39 marijuana grow house cases still winding through the courts, defense attorneys are attacking investigative techniques and officer veracity.

Among other things, the attorneys have challenged statements on search warrants that detectives smelled growing marijuana from just outside a suspect property's perimeter.

The attorneys also say that detectives trespassed illegally on suspects' property to peak inside houses, sniff around and look for tell-tale grow house window insulation.

Last week, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Giovannoni once worked his way to a suspect's front door by wearing a Progress Energy uniform that a company employee had given him. Informed by the Times, Gualtieri said he was appalled but chalked it up to a creative, but improper ruse by a young detective.

On Friday, Gualtieri said Giovannoni and Sciarrino are now subject to an internal affairs investigation that involves allegations that they trespassed on suspects' property more than once and that a third deputy knew about it but failed to report it.

Defense attorney John Trevena said Friday that if Giovannoni and Sciarrino acquired Progress Energy records improperly and misled the State Attorney's Office, their credibility in any criminal case is shot.

Trevena, who represents four Simply Hydroponics defendants, said he plans to file motions to throw out search warrants from any cases those officers handled. He will particularly challenge officer statements that they could sniff marijuana from 15 or 20 feet away from a house, Trevena said, because the judge has to take their word for it before awarding the search warrant.

"Once branded a liar, every statement from those officers is now suspect,'' Trevena said. "They will have no credibility with the courts.''

The Simply Hydroponics surveillance had potential because marijuana growers need supplies.

But deputies had a problem. They could take down auto tag numbers to identify customers, but how could they sort out indoor pot farmers from innocent people growing herbs or tomatoes?

That's where Progress Energy records came in.

Pot grow houses often consume unusually high amounts of electricity. By policy, Progress Energy requires a subpoena, issued by the State Attorney's Office, before releasing customer billing records. But just the fact that somebody entered a hydroponics store is insufficient grounds for a subpoena, Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said.

Detective Papamichael developed an arrangement with a Progress Energy employee who would check the records on the sly — first for Papamichael and later for Giovannoni and Sciarrino, Gualtieri said.

When the employee found high wattage, she would provide copies of those records to detectives, along with records of three similar houses nearby for comparison.

To cover for her violation of company policy, the employee asked the deputies to get after-the-fact subpoenas for those high usage cases because the records could show up in court, Gualtieri said. No one got subpoenas for the dozens of innocent hydroponics customers whose records were also checked.

Bartlett said his office had no idea that detectives were requesting subpoenas for records they already possessed.

Drafting and approving subpoenas takes lots of time, he said, and "they are somewhat duping us'' if they already had the information.

Bartlett disagreed with Trevena's assessment that the Progress Energy arrangement would jeopardize any prosecutions. No law requires officers to acquire the power bills through subpoena and the records are authentic, Bartlett said.

"But I sure would like somebody to give me an explanation why they had to keep it a secret from us," he said.

"You have to ask yourself what else don't I know?''

Any legal battles over the Progress Energy records will center on challenging the search warrants before a case ever gets to a jury. Tarpon Springs attorney Jerry Theophilopoulos said he plans to argue that the same detectives who lied about subpoenas can't be trusted about whether they smelled marijuana from sidewalks — and that's the key to getting the search warrants thrown out.

The detectives "have to come to court with clean hands," he said. "Once hands are dirty, everything else you have done is suspect."

Gualtieri said he was frustrated to learn from the Times Thursday that detectives had developed an improper pipeline into Progress Energy. And he worries about officer credibility and his department's reputation.

"You know what you are doing is wrong and you are covering yourself on the backside,'' Gualtieri said. "You don't fully inform the state attorney and have them go through hoops to get information on something you already have.

"It just stinks.''

Progress Energy declined to identify the employee who shared the billing records without prior subpoenas but "will take appropriate action as necessary,'' said spokeswoman Suzanne Grant.

As he did last week, Gualtieri said problems within the narcotics division stemmed from lax supervision by former Capt. Robert Alfonso, who resigned after Gualtieri took over as sheriff.

Alfonso denied this week knowing anything about the Progress Energy arrangement.

But Gualtieri said that doesn't matter. "He should have known what was going on. That's why you have him there.''

At the time, Gualtieri was chief deputy. Was his supervision lax as well?

No, said Gualtieri. He was in charge of day-to-day operations of about 2,800 employees and worked out of headquarters.

Alfonso commanded the narcotics unit in a separate building and was in daily contact with all 50 employees.

"I can't be everywhere,'' Gualtieri said. "I have to make sure I have people taking care of business.''

Alfonso said that Gualtieri's statements "are just political'' because the sheriff is running for re-election so he is "throwing the narcotics division under the bus.''

As chief deputy, Gualtieri "had his fingers in every aspect of that agency,'' Alfonso said. "I did nothing without going up the chain of command to him.''

Narcotics detectives are hard-working officers who do a good job, even if they sometimes make mistakes, Alfonso said.

But now they are "being made to look like a bunch of fools and nothing could be further from the truth,'' he said. "Those men and women deserve more respect.''

Gualtieri said Friday that he didn't think problems within the narcotics unit were widespread — despite 16 internal affairs investigations announced within a week.

Some investigations involve the same officers, he said, but declined to elaborate until the probes are complete.

Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at (727) 893-8442 or nohlgren@tampabay.com.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect the following correction: Correction

Pinellas County Sheriff's Sgt. Ron Wehr has been reassigned from the narcotics unit. His name was misspelled in Sunday's Tampa Bay Times.

More questions arise over tactics by Pinellas sheriff's narcotics unit 03/09/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 16, 2012 5:35pm]

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