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Tampa police chief launches investigation of DUI unit; mayor weighs in

TAMPA — In an effort to restore public confidence in a police department rocked by a DUI scandal, Tampa police Chief Jane Castor on Tuesday announced a team of "experts" to review drunken driving arrests.

A six-person panel, including retired Circuit Judge Barbara Fleischer and Nick Cox, the Florida attorney general's statewide prosecutor, will look at all open cases involving Sgt. Ray Fernandez and Officer Tim McGinnis. The team will then review a random sample of about 50 other DUI cases.

Fernandez and McGinnis were the officers involved in the controversial Jan. 23 arrest of lawyer C. Philip Campbell, which prosecutors last week concluded was a setup involving a rival law firm. Also, in February, Fernandez was involved in the arrest of Cuban trade advocate Al Fox, 69, on a DUI charge that did not stick. Fox had a 0.000 blood-alcohol level.

Last week, Campbell's attorney John Fitzgibbons called for an independent review of the DUI unit, criticizing Castor and Mayor Bob Buckhorn for not taking action. Later that same day, the chief announced the decentralization of the DUI unit, which she said will provide more oversight.

Tuesday, Castor announced the team that will look for flaws, discrepancies and relevant information omitted from reports. That group will report anything that needs to be corrected and weigh in on policy changes that could make the department's DUI investigations stronger, she said.

Castor doesn't expect the team, which includes a representative from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and two former Tampa police DUI supervisors, to uncover anything negative. Mainly, she wants to restore public confidence, given the headline-making controversy that has "cast a shadow not only on the agency's DUI unit, but the entire department."

Buckhorn, weighing in for the first time since the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office released its scathing report detailing a setup, said Castor's actions can assure the public that the police handle cases appropriately.

"The actions of any one individual should not reflect on the entire department," he said in a prepared statement. The officer's fate will be determined later, "but the larger issue of how the DUI unit operates is being dealt with today."

"Rest assured that if the investigation proves incompetence or a gross violation of the officer involved, actions will be swift and appropriate."

After the police news conference, Campbell's attorney fired back with his own.

Fitzgibbons told reporters a review panel "appears to be a baby step, and I emphasize baby step, in the right direction," but he expressed strong reservations. A look at Fernandez's cases and a random sampling of others does not address larger issues including arrest quotas and a lack of dashboard cameras on every car.

Fitzgibbons called Judge Fleischer and Cox "very distinguished members of the legal community" and said he hopes they get "a broad mandate to look at anything and everything they want."

He also pointed to the police chief's statement that Fernandez initially told her he deleted "a few" phone messages — which turned out to be 92. He called it "mind-boggling" that someone could lie directly to a supervisor without discipline. "This is moving at a snail's pace, and I can't understand why," he said.

There also may be courtroom fallout.

Hillsborough prosecutors are sending notice to defense attorneys in 24 cases in which Fernandez is a witness and attaching a copy of the blistering report from Pinellas prosecutors.

That office declined to prosecute Campbell for DUI. The tip that led to his arrest had come from Fernandez's close friend, a lawyer in the Adams & Diaco firm, when the firm was in trial against Campbell in a nasty defamation case between radio show hosts.

The issue of the officers' testimony in pending cases centers on what's called Brady material.

A landmark U.S. Supreme Court case called Brady vs. Maryland requires prosecutors to disclose to defense attorneys evidence that might potentially help their clients.

Under the Brady rule, Hillsborough prosecutors plan to disclose the Pinellas report to lawyers in cases in which either officer is a witness. The lawyers can then decide whether they will try to use that information to attack the officers' credibility on the witness stand.

A State Attorney's Office memo noted that prosecutors are not precluded from using the officers as witnesses. "We are making these disclosures in an effort to err on the side of caution," the memo said.

Fernandez has been reassigned to desk duty and McGinnis is being reassigned from the DUI unit to patrol. The circumstances of Campbell's arrest are being investigated by the FBI and the Florida Bar.

The Police Department can choose to open an internal investigation once the FBI is done, but regardless of the outcome, Castor called it "highly unlikely" either officer would return to DUI work.

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Tampa police chief launches investigation of DUI unit; mayor weighs in 08/06/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 7, 2013 12:18pm]
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