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Prosecutor steps down from case

The prosecutor investigating a bar fight involving Hernando County Commissioner John Richardson has removed herself from the case, citing the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Assistant State Attorney Rita Battista is married to Robert "Butch" Battista, who as managing attorney for the county works for Richardson and other commissioners.

Rita Battista said Thursday she didn't believe there was an actual conflict.

But she said she had received a phone call from a resident complaining about the matter, and was also told there had been a letter to the editor in the Times.

She recused herself to make sure nobody thinks she was being soft on Richardson because her husband works with him, she said.

"I don't treat anybody as more special than anybody else," she said. "But rather than anybody out there thinking that (Richardson's position) would have something to do with my decision . . . there are plenty of other attorneys in this office."

Rita Battista said the decision on whether to file charges in the Feb. 8 bar fight will be turned over to her superiors in the state attorney's office in Ocala. A decision is expected within two weeks.

Richardson was hit over the head with a bar stool in a fight at Miss Kitty's Hilltop Lounge in Brooksville. His was by far the most serious injury that night. And police and prosecutors have shown no signs of pursuing charges against any combatant other than the person who hit Richardson.

LeRoy Moore Jr., 22, of Brooksville has confessed to delivering the blow, but says it was an accident. He says he was aiming for someone else in self-defense, but wound up nailing the burly, two-term Republican from Aripeka.

Key to Moore's fate will be whether prosecutors believe he was acting in self-defense.

Moore and his friends have said that Richardson and friend Kenneth Gariepy instigated the brawl, which left three men bloody and brought police to the Broad Street bar. Richardson and Gariepy have told police the others were at fault.

Before removing herself from the case, Rita Battista had interviewed some of the combatants and was preparing to decide on charges. There are a couple of people left to interview. She said an investigator in her office will take over that responsibility.

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