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Sheriff cleared of 1992 allegations

Published Oct. 6, 2005

The state attorney's office has cleared Pasco Sheriff Lee Cannon of allegations that he accepted $50,000 from a drug dealer during the 1992 election campaign.

In a letter dated March 4 to Cannon, Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe wrote that the accuser was a confidential informant who later admitted he made up the story. The informant made the allegations to ingratiate himself with detectives in the administration of then-Sheriff Jim Gillum, McCabe wrote.

The informant told detectives that a drug dealer gave Cannon $50,000 in a secret meeting at the Outback Steakhouse in Palm Harbor, according to a Sheriff's Office memo dated Sept. 1, 1992. The man wanted to "buy (Cannon) off" during the sheriff's campaign, the memo stated.

McCabe's letter to Cannon concludes that because the person who made the allegations "has unequivocally indicated that they were false, we have closed our investigation."

Cannon said Monday that he had asked McCabe to investigate the allegations last month, after newspapers published stories about Cannon being sued by a former vice and narcotics detective and his captain. Both lawsuits state that Cannon fired or forced out the detectives because they had investigated the drug money allegations.

Mario Pascalli, the former detective who has filed suit, told the Times last month that he and other detectives actively investigated the drug money allegations through the 1992 sheriff's election.

Francis "Gene" Caruso, Pascalli's former captain in the vice and narcotics unit, also claimed in a lawsuit that he was forced to resign because he led the investigation.

Both men have said the investigation never cleared Cannon of the allegations. They said it ended only because Cannon fired or forced out the detectives looking into the claims. Both lawsuits also claim that Cannon discriminated against them because they supported Gillum.

Cannon has maintained that he never accepted campaign donations from a drug dealer. Shortly after 5 p.m. Monday, he faxed out McCabe's letter to the media and called reporters to say he officially had been vindicated.

"My career, 25 years, is on the line here," Cannon said. "While I know I'm innocent, it takes an investigation to tell the public I'm innocent. . . . I'm still upset about the fact that someone would tell lies and attack my 25 years of professionalism."

McCabe's letter states that the original drug money story came from John Thomas Herold. Herold told detectives that a man named Russell Cherry had told him that he had given $50,000 to Cannon, the letter says.

But when investigators from the state attorney's office questioned Cherry, he "vehemently denied the occurrence of those events and was unaware of why anyone would make such allegations," McCabe's letter stated.

When investigators interviewed Herold on Feb. 24, he admitted that he had lied about his conversation with Cherry, McCabe wrote. Herold said he made up the story "to improve his position as a confidential informant for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office," the letter states.

Court records show a lengthy criminal record for a John Thomas Herold, including a 30-month prison sentence in 1990 for violating probation on a petty theft conviction.

Neither he nor Cherry could be reached for comment Monday evening.

Cannon said he doesn't know or remember meeting Cherry or Herold.

"If I've ever met (Cherry), it's totally unknown to me," Cannon said.

"I don't even know the confidential informant," he added. "I don't know if the person ever provided any information. He hasn't for my administration."

Cannon said Pascalli and Caruso filed "bogus lawsuits" full of "vicious" allegations.

"They wanted to discredit the sheriff because they wanted to be in power," Cannon said.

"Mr. Pascalli and Mr. Caruso knew (the drug money allegations) were a lie," he added. "If they didn't, it demonstrates their lack of professionalism in their veracity of finding out whether allegations were true."

Pascalli and Caruso could not be reached for comment Monday evening.

Pascalli was fired in March 1993 after an internal affairs investigation found he had violated numerous Sheriff's Office policies. Caruso resigned last March, 10 weeks before an internal investigation found he hadn't properly disciplined Pascalli.