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Witness rehashes bribery charges against judge

GAINESVILLE - At the time of his death two years ago, Pinellas Circuit Judge Harry Fogle was under investigation for allegations that he accepted a $200,000 bribe to dismiss charges against accused drug smugglers. The allegations, though never substantiated, were mentioned Wednesday by Pinellas Sheriff's Department Detective Ken Kevas as he testified in the federal trial of former Chiefland Police Chief Don Anderson and Pinellas County drug smuggler Darwin Salls.

Kevas testified that drug investigators for Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney James T. Russell wanted to use Salls as a witness against Fogle. Kevas said the investigation involved money allegedly paid to Fogle by Salls and his father in 1976 after Fogle dismissed drug charges against Salls and others.

Defendant Salls refused to testify against Fogle, a widely known circuit judge who served 16 years on the Pinellas bench. The allegations against the judge were never prosecuted.

Salls, in interviews with a St. Petersburg Times reporter, has denied making any payment to Fogle. "I never paid him a dime," Salls said.

"I prepared an affidavit for Fogle and said I'd stand up for him if it ever comes to it. Fogle said he'd stand up for me. Then he got sick and died."

In fact, Salls and Anderson say prosecutor Russell was so angered by their refusal to cooperate in his investigation of Fogle that Russell helped spark the federal investigation that led to the indictment of Salls and Anderson.

Salls said Russell's investigators told his lawyers "that there are two governments in this county and Jimmy Russell is one of them."

The testimony Wednesday was the latest twist in a bitter behind-the-scenes battle over Salls that has raged between federal and state agencies for several years. Salls helped catch drug smugglers for federal agencies at a time when Pinellas County officials contend he also was conducting his own drug trafficking business.

There also was apparent discord between Pinellas detectives and the state attorney.

Detective Kevas admitted asking an informant to keep information from Russell about the drug investigation of a prominent Pinellas County businessman with personal ties to Russell. That admission came as defense attorneys questioned Kevas about a telephone conversation that Anderson recorded in 1987 and turned over to U.S. Customs officers.

Kevas did not name the businessman on the witness stand and refused to answer questions after he left the courtroom.

Russell, contacted Wednesday night, declined comment on the Fogle allegations and said he does not know anything about the investigation Kevas mentioned. "I would be very disappointed if that occurred," Russell said when asked about the investigation of the businessman.

Russell launched an investigation of Salls after Chief Anderson reported hearing in 1986 that Salls dropped 20 kilograms of cocaine over a North Pinellas pasture in 1984. Salls was flying 600 pounds of cocaine to an airport in Pasco County for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

During the 1984 incident, Salls' airplane was being followed by Customs and DEA officers who were supervising Salls in an investigation of some Gainesville drug dealers.

Salls and the DEA say no cocaine was dropped from the airplane.

Several witnesses who have testified against Salls say they helped retrieve a duffle bag filled with cocaine after the drop.

Kevas said Anderson told him in 1987 that he did not believe Salls had done anything wrong and did not want to stop using him as an informant.

Salls and Anderson, a former Pinellas deputy who has known the Salls family for years, are now on trial on federal drug trafficking charges that include the drug drop. Salls faces a similar charge in Pinellas County but has yet to stand trial.

Salls, a longtime informant for the DEA and U.S. Customs, continued working for federal drug investigators until shortly before his arrest in Pinellas County in July 1988.

A federal grand jury in Tallahassee indicted Anderson and Salls in June 1989, alleging that the police officer and his best informant had actually been trafficking in drugs since 1984. They are on trial for the second time. Last fall a jury convicted them on one drug conspiracy charge, acquitted them on two others and could not reach a decision on six additional charges.

The unsubstantiated allegations against Fogle grew out of a case that began in 1976 when Salls and four others were arrested on a north Pinellas County ranch owned by the Salls family. The men were accused of bringing in 584 pounds of marijuana from Colombia. Fogle suppressed wiretap evidence gathered by prosecutors and dismissed the charges.

Russell appealed and won.

By the time the appeal had been heard, Salls had been arrested on drug trafficking charges in De Soto County. He was sentenced to concurrent three-year prison terms and released in 1982.

At the time Fogle dismissed the charges, he was chief judge of the circuit. He had just presided over a series of highly publicized corruption cases Russell's office successfully brought against three Pinellas County commissioners.

Just a year before the Salls case, Fogle was involved in a controversy sparked by accusations from Dr. J.C. Benefield, a St. Petersburg chiropractor, who said Fogle sought a $55,000 bribe to free a drug smuggling suspect. Fogle said Benefield offered him a $55,000 bribe. Benefield was convicted of bribery and served six years in prison.

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