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Prosecutor, attorney accused of extortion

New allegations in an ongoing lawsuit accuse a federal prosecutor and his attorney of trying to extort $500,000 from Manatee County Sheriff Charlie Wells.

The court document, filed Thursday, alleges assistant U.S. attorney Jeffrey Del Fuoco and attorney Craig Huffman filed a "meritless" lawsuit and used it to repeatedly "smear" the sheriff.

At an Aug. 20 meeting, Del Fuoco told Wells and his attorneys he had evidence Wells had violated state campaign finance laws, the court filing states. Del Fuoco, with Huffman at his side, then said he would "go away" if Wells agreed to pay $500,000 plus attorneys fees to settle the lawsuit Del Fuoco brought against the sheriff and his employees, according to the document.

"Their conduct likely amounts to outright extortion under Florida criminal law," Wells' attorneys wrote in the filing. The motion asks for sanctions against Del Fuoco and Huffman including forcing them to pay nearly $169,000 for Wells' attorneys' fees and costs.

Neither Del Fuoco or Huffman could be reached for comment. They will be allowed to file a response in writing to the court. A hearing on the matter has not been scheduled.

In 2003, Del Fuoco filed a lawsuit against the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, including Wells.

Del Fuoco said the sheriff's office was retaliating against him for successfully prosecuting six members of the Sheriff's Office's Delta Task Force antidrug unit in 1999 and 2000 on charges that included conspiracy to violate civil rights, witness tampering and planting evidence on suspects.

The lawsuit said the office illegally ran his license plates through a state database. Huffman said at the time that the Manatee agency might have planned to plant crack cocaine in Del Fuoco's car to discredit him.

A few months later, Del Fuoco added to the allegations, accusing the Sheriff's Office of illegally surveilling his home and family.

Del Fuoco's lawyers say the Florida Department of Law Enforcement alerted Del Fuoco that someone had run his name through the state database, after a routine check by the FDLE taken for the federal prosecutor's protection.

The Manatee Sheriff's Office acknowledges it ran Del Fuoco's plates. Officials said they could not say why, but maintained it was for law enforcement purposes.

Huffman eventually dismissed Wells from the suit, but the case against the other defendants remains open.

Along with his work on the Manatee corruption case, Del Fuoco has obtained convictions against members of the Plant City Police Department, which was embroiled in a corruption scandal of its own. Critics have accused Del Fuoco of overzealous prosecutions, including the use of improper threats and coercion against a potential witness.

Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brinksptimes.com.

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