Hillsborough Circuit Judge Samantha Ward has struck a blow for open government and police accountability. In an order issued last week, Ward instructed prosecutors to disclose a range of records documenting the work of a Tampa police informer at the center of a federal corruption investigation. The ruling should shed welcome light on the handling of informers that will be as good for the public as for the Tampa Police Department.
The order comes in a case against Rita Girven, an informer facing charges in state court of food stamp fraud and grand theft. Authorities allege former Tampa police Sgt. LaJoyce Houston illegally used Girven's food stamps to buy groceries. Both have pleaded not guilty. Girven is also implicated in a federal grand jury investigation that has drawn in several former Tampa police employees, including Houston's husband, Eric Houston, a former detective. Eric Houston has not been charged and maintains his innocence. Both Houstons were fired, and a federal investigation into tax fraud is continuing.
Girven's attorneys had argued the records should be released, and Ward's order — coming over the objections of prosecutors and police — should shed more light on the working relationship between the police and an informer that is typically shrouded in secrecy under Florida law. Ward ordered authorities to provide all records of interviews with Girven, the names and credentials of officers who recruited or handled her, and the records of any payments or promises made as part of her contact with law enforcement. More broadly, Ward ordered the department to identify how its use of Girven squares with state law on the appropriate handling of informants.
The sweep of the judge's order should help provide depth and context to the relationship between Girven and the police. Girven boasted to the Tampa Bay Times that she had close ties to as many as 300 officers. The files should establish her credibility as much as the department's. A Tampa police spokeswoman said this week that while the agency was still compiling its records on Girven, the leads she provided typically involved arrests after an investigation was completed, and that no cases had been found that required Girven to testify in court.
Police Chief Jane Castor has already directed the department to take a closer look at its use of informants. That will be useful in making internal changes to ensure that informers are not using the police and that officers are not abusing their authority. Given the covert nature of these relationships, this examination should be an ongoing exercise. Ward has helped in this regard by ordering a open review of a secretive practice that needs more public scrutiny.