Mayor Curtis Rich, touching on a topic he has repeatedly tried to steer clear of, has accused the Department of Environmental Protection of tampering with a photograph it will present as evidence against the SunCruz IV.
The photos show the 98-foot casino boat, subject of a local environmental controversy for months, kicking up silt as it makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico.
At Monday night's City Council meeting, Rich referenced two DEP photos published in the Citrus Times in recent weeks, saying one was "obviously airbrushed."
After the meeting, Rich said he had been a photographer for 15 years and knew how to spot a doctored photo.
Nan Jordan, a DEP official in Tampa who supervises the DEP technician who took the photos, says the mayor's claims are groundless.
"I have the original of that photograph," she said. "I have the negative of that photograph, and the mayor, the City Council or anyone else who would be interested in verifying its validity are more than welcome to see those photographs.
"They were not airbrushed," she said. "They were not altered in any capacity."
The DEP plans to enter the photographs and others as evidence in its lawsuit against Paradise of Port Richey, the company that operates SunCruz IV from the old Crystal River Yacht Club. The boat has not sailed since Oct. 13, when the Florida Marine Patrol arrested its captain on a charge of stirring up silt in the Crystal River.
SunCruz argues that the state agency is enforcing environmental laws against the casino boat but no others.
On Tuesday, Rich was less eager to talk about the photographs. He would not identify which of the two photos he thought had been altered.
"I'm not going to get involved in that," he said. "The first thing I know, I'll be splashed on the front page with SunCruz."
One photo published in the Times was an aerial shot of the boat. The other showed the boat from behind, with a trail of murky brown water in its wake.
The water color, Rich said, is one indicator of the photo's questionable authenticity.
"In my opinion, there's so very obviously airbrush work going on," Rich said Tuesday. "I've never seen brown turbidity. Not in front of my house _ it's always been black and gray."
The mayor has tried to keep the casino boat issue at arm's length since March, when local newspapers reported he tried to lure the casino boat to Crystal River. He said the reports were exaggerated.
In August, a DEP memo surfaced that suggested Rich had tried to clear the way for casino boat operators to buy the yacht club property.
Rich said the memo, written by Matt Clemons, St. Martins Marsh Aquatic Preserve manager, was false. "It's just not true," he said at the time.
Since then, Rich has tried to avoid the issue because of the pending lawsuits.
His remarks at the council meeting were made during a discussion about cleaning sediment from Kings Bay.
"As mayor, I can't afford to get involved," Rich said Tuesday.
"Let's just let that dog lie for the time being."