Saturday, June 23, 2018
Public safety

Tampa Police fire former DUI supervisor at center of tainted DUI arrest

TAMPA — Tampa police Sgt. Ray Fernandez may not have known the Jan. 23 DUI arrest outside Malio's steak house was a setup. He may indeed only have been a pawn in lawyers' schemes, used by a close family friend.

But Fernandez lied, the Tampa Police Department announced Friday. And he likely destroyed evidence.

Because of that, the agency fired its former DUI supervisor Friday.

Police Chief Jane Castor, who has faced criticism for her slow start to action, announced his termination at a news conference. "Sgt. Fernandez lost his impartiality and professionalism in dealing with this case," she said.

Fernandez worked for the agency about 19 years. He had been DUI supervisor for seven years and was making a salary of about $92,500, according to the city. He was informed at noon.

According to an internal investigation, Fernandez violated five regulations, including the agency's policy on truthfulness, which is a fireable offense. The FBI is still investigating the events of Jan. 23, and Fernandez does not face criminal charges. He will likely receive his pension, which is $73,196 a year.

According to his lawyer Chip Purcell, Fernandez plans to "vigorously" fight to get his job back. The union has an arbitration process, which Fernandez can use.

Castor said it is "highly unlikely" Fernandez will return.

The firing stems from what happened that January evening during the second week of a civil defamation trial pitting Bubba the Love Sponge Clem against radio rival Todd "MJ" Schnitt.

According to state investigators, a paralegal from the law firm of Adams & Diaco, which was representing Clem, lied about where she worked and bought several drinks for Tampa lawyer C. Philip Campbell, who was representing Schnitt.

All the while, the paralegal was calling and texting her bosses. Those bosses included lawyer Adam Filthaut, a close family friend of Fernandez. Filthaut kept the DUI supervisor informed about the drinking at Malio's bar as the police officers waited outside. The pair exchanged more than 90 texts, and Fernandez knew exactly when Campbell was leaving the bar.

About 10 p.m., Fernandez pulled Campbell over as Campbell drove the paralegal's car. Another officer arrested Campbell after he declined to complete a field sobriety test.

Six months later, prosecutors announced that Campbell would not face a DUI charge given the circumstances of his arrest. Campbell's attorney John Fitzgibbons demanded accountability from the Police Department. In early August, he questioned the DUI unit's practices and asked for an outside review.

Castor said that was unnecessary but nonetheless reorganized the DUI unit, fanning its officers out to the agency's three district offices to provide more oversight. She also called together a group of "experts" to audit previous DUI cases.

Friday, Fitzgibbons said: "The dominoes are starting to fall. We are beginning to see that those involved in the setup arrest of Phil Campbell are facing the consequences of their actions. This case is far, far from over, and I anticipate there will be consequences for others in the future."

New evidence in Fernandez's internal investigation indicate the sergeant did not know about his lawyer friend's connection to Campbell. In messages between him and a fellow officer staking out Malio's, the other officer wrote: "I hope we get him or he doesn't pass out walking to his car. … I think that was the one that bubba the love sponge put on his show."

Fernandez responded, "no clue."

Fernandez would later tell state investigators that he was "pretty p----d" the next day when he learned of the connection between Filthaut and Campbell. However, that day, he says, he accidentally deleted the 90-some text messages between him and Filthaut.

"The accidental deletion of these text messages is highly questionable, both in occurrence and timing," the Tampa Police internal affairs summary states. Those texts would have certainly have provided "clarity and detail to the investigation had they not only been retained, but documented in the police report."

Because of that, internal investigators found he violated the rule of "conformance to law." They suspect he destroyed evidence but have not alleged he went past the threshold into criminal territory.

He was also found to have violated four other regulations:

• Truthfulness in departmental matters.

• Misuse of authority.

• Standard of conduct.

• Failure to comply with standard operating procedures, philosophy of enforcement.

The lies? According to the Police Department, that comes from his court testimony Jan. 25, when Fernandez was asked whether he had received any phone calls from Filthaut or his firm after Campbell's arrest. Fernandez replied: "I didn't talk to him after the arrest, no, sir."

However, phone records show Fernandez talked with Filthaut once and exchanged two texts shortly after Campbell's arrest.

"Sgt. Fernandez's actions in this instance resulted in him becoming the principal of a civil rights violation and destruction of evidence investigation by the FBI," the review concludes.

Fernandez, who had been moved to administrative duty in May, was put on leave Aug. 29.

Meanwhile, the officer who arrested Campbell, Timothy McGinnis, continues to work for the department. He did not know where Fernandez was getting his information, Castor said Friday, though McGinnis did receive a "letter of counseling" for his rude tone during an administrative hearing regarding Campbell's arrest.

Officers facing termination can ask for a "complaint review board." Fernandez's review board met last week and split on the harshest allegations. For the violation of truthfulness, three of the five officers did not agree with the internal affairs bureau's findings. However, the review board's determinations are not binding. The police chief can still discipline the officer.

Fernandez's attorney Purcell said Friday: "The lack of fairness and integrity in this process is disgusting." He said Fernandez was not given due process in the investigation or a chance to rebut the allegations. Purcell called the sergeant's firing a "political sacrifice."

"Was Ray Fernandez used by his friend? Yes," Purcell said. "But that doesn't mean he has knowingly and intentionally done something wrong."

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said that when it came to the investigation and firing, city officials "did exactly what we said we were going to do," even if it did not happen as quickly as some wanted. Asked if he thought Fernandez had been used by his lawyer friend, Buckhorn said, "My sense is that he was used and then made a number of decisions after that compounded his problems.

"I think that lawyer threw his friend under the bus," the mayor said. "And then backed up over him."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

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