Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe should thoroughly investigate the curious case of Port Richey City Manager Tom O'Neill, who was found unconscious behind the wheel of his SUV on July 13. Police officers gave O'Neill a pass on taking sobriety tests, sent him to a hospital by ambulance, drove his vehicle to his house and chauffeured him home after his discharge. It revealed questionable judgment from two small-town police departments and raised questions of favoritism toward the city administrator, who police said smelled of alcohol and was too unsteady to walk without assistance.
McCabe said Wednesday he ordered the investigation to determine if O'Neill should face a drunken driving charge after reading news accounts of the incident that detailed O'Neill's physical condition and a police decision to treat the case as a medical emergency rather than a criminal investigation.
To his credit, the first officer on the scene — New Port Richey police Cpl. William Phillips — recognized the sticky situation of finding O'Neill passed out in a vehicle idling at an intersection. Phillips requested assistance from other agencies to avoid the appearances of impropriety. But the only department available was Port Richey Police, and its officer called in his chief, Dave Brown, an O'Neill subordinate. That only exacerbated the potential conflict of interest.
O'Neill, the retired city manager of New Port Richey who assumed the same job for Port Richey 18 months ago, later caught a ride home from the hospital with Brown. The presence of Brown at the scene "certainly complicates the situation,'' said New Port Richey police Chief Kim Bogart. It creates at least a perception of partiality and could have influenced Phillips into short-circuiting a drunken driving investigation after O'Neill did not respond to verbal commands.
An independent investigation is the best way to restore public confidence that people will receive equal treatment from local police no matter what their job title at city hall.