Editor’s note: For a recent investigation, Tampa Bay Times reporters Rebecca Woolington and Justin Trombly spent two months digging into politics in Port Richey, a small city in Pasco County.
Port Richey made the news recently when two mayors were arrested in four weeks. Mayor Dale Massad was charged with practicing medicine without a license and attempted murder after authorities say he shot at the cops. His successor, Vice Mayor Terrence Rowe, was charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Woolington and Trombly found unusual personal and business relationships between Massad and other top officials that persisted despite clear signs Massad was unstable. They reviewed hundreds of pages of police reports and city documents and interviewed key players across Port Richey.
Along the way, they collected a series of telling, profane or simply bizarre scenes that didn’t make the final draft. Here are the best of them.
The drug dealer with an appointment.
Police watching Massad’s home noticed one woman coming and going.
Port Richey police started talking to her one day during a traffic stop and brought her back to the police station to chat about Massad, police Chief Gerard DeCanio told the Times during a recent interview. DeCanio said he came in on a Sunday to talk to her.
She was willing to speak to police about selling drugs to the mayor but said she only had an hour or two to talk.
After that, she was expected to make a delivery at the mayor’s house.
“Wait a minute,” DeCanio recalled telling her. “Do you have the drugs on you?”
The woman, DeCanio said, told police she did not and still needed to make the deal.
DeCanio said police didn’t want to jeopardize the investigation. But they didn’t want to condone a crime either.
DeCanio said they told her: “We’re not giving you permission to do that.”
And they let her leave.
Thoughts on the Sunshine Law in Port Richey.
Over the past three decades, officials in Port Richey have repeatedly come under fire for breaking the state’s Sunshine Law by meeting in private.
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In recent years, Vice Mayor Rowe has seemed determined to not repeat that mistake — but not by conducting all business in public.
Rather, when sending notes about city issues to other council members, he emphatically told them not to answer his typo-ridden emails.
One such message came in May 2017, when Rowe shared a note with Massad that he’d sent to an absentee City Hall gadfly. Rowe told the resident he was sad he stopped coming to city meetings and asked, “Why have you turned into and old poop?”
He forwarded the email, which contained updates on city projects, to Massad, saying, “Dale please do not respond to this email. We do not want to break any sunshine shit.”
That August, Rowe wrote Massad to give him a heads up that he would be forwarding emails about the city’s Hike and Bike Trail. He again told the mayor not to write back.
“God and the Sunshine Police will not forgive us if you do,” he told Massad.
Even in the predawn hours before Massad’s arrest, Rowe was sending an email to the council related to city business. In red-colored type, he warned members not to discuss the issue at hand, a paving project led by Pasco County.
He sent the message on Feb. 21 at 3:30 a.m. — about an hour before a SWAT team broke down Massad’s door.
A New Year’s gift from Noah Pransky.
Noah Pransky, a former investigative reporter for WTSP-NewsChannel 10, broke several tough stories about the Port Richey Police Department. When he announced he was leaving the region late last year, City Manager Vincent Lupo was happy to share the news in an email:
“Mayor Hope this information starts your New Year off with a smile. Geraldo Rivera wanna-be, Noah Pransky, has left CBS and will be heading North to parts unknown. I’m sure we all wish him well in his new location doing whatever he thinks he does.”
Pransky, who collaborated with Times reporters on last year’s Zombie Campaigns investigation, took the note as a compliment.
“I thank the city manager for his well-wishes and I’m flattered he thought of me,” Pransky wrote in an email to the Times. “I wish him and the former city mayor the best of luck as well.”
Massad wanted special treatment from the cops.
A police sergeant responded to Massad’s home last August because Massad wanted someone banned from his property.
The call came 10 days after the city referred allegations against the mayor to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and two days after Massad and his girlfriend both were arrested and accused of battering each other.
When police arrived at the mayor’s house, the person Massad wanted banned was gone. The sergeant said she couldn’t do anything further.
“Dale further began expressing his displeasure for the department and myself at which time I directly asked him why he had an issue with me,” the sergeant wrote in a police report. “He advised that I would not bend and/or waiver in favor to him and his requests and that I should.
“I advised him that any and all decisions I made merit the facts and circumstances of the incident, not the individual which he was not pleased with this response.”
The sergeant left.
What the cops thought of Mayor Massad.
Around Port Richey, police Chief DeCanio said officers would talk about Massad’s behavior and wonder whether he was using substances.
“There were indications in the way that he would talk and his eyes,” DeCanio told the Times during a recent interview.
Officers, DeCanio said, would ask, “Hey, what’s the mayor on? Is he drinking?”
DeCanio said he heard the mayor was taking pain medication for his knees, and Massad’s behavior was “pretty much consistent with someone who’s on pain pills.”
What Mayor Massad thought of everyone else.
On Jan. 2, Massad let the folks in City Hall know he was upset with them.
“I’m writing because I’m so damn angry at the inefficiency of administration that I’m in self imposed exile until I cool off,” Massad wrote.
He said he told the assistant city manager he wanted an item about the city’s Waterfront Overlay District on the council’s agenda. He said he left a message for her “6 weeks ago!!!” He apologized for screaming at the city clerk.
“i bring this up under the guise of a bigger problem,” Massad continued. “That is the total lack of efficient communication with Administration which has to be corrected. As Vince (Lupo) says, ‘I am a creature of the Council,’ while I feel like we are creatures of Administration.”
He told the council he wanted to be CC’d on communications about dredging of canals. He ended by saying, “This should be the greatest year in the history of Port Richey so let's get to work.”
What Mayor Massad thought of women.
Massad married twice and later divorced, both times in Pinellas County. He had one son. Years later, asked by a reporter if he was interested in marriage, he described his policy when it came to relationships: “Lease, don’t buy.”
Scenes from Mayor Massad’s house.
The walls and shelves inside Massad’s home held relics of his medical past ― degrees, awards, an ad for his old Palm Harbor clinic. He’d lost his license to practice medicine more than two decades ago, but the certificates were prominently displayed in a hallway anyway.
The state investigation painted a colorful picture of a mayor who rarely left home.
The mayor feared his own security cameras, people who lived with him told investigators, and waved a device at some guests that he said would detect whether they were wearing a wire.
A 52-year-old man — in jail on meth charges as of Tuesday — told agents he had lived for months in Massad’s home. He described dealers arriving in the attached apartment in pairs. Massad would send a girlfriend over from the main house to get a sample of each for Massad to try, he told investigators. Then Massad would give her $200 in cash, and she’d buy from whichever dealer was selling the product Massad liked best.
What happened to the drugs for Africa?
Lupo, the city manager, and Massad became friends when Massad was a newly minted City Council member. Lupo joined the board of a charity Massad was president of called Africare Enviro-Med.
The nonprofit aimed to provide medical care to needy children in Africa, and to educate their parents on how to keep their kids healthy, according the organization’s articles of incorporation, filed by Massad. It also aimed to fight poaching, and to protect endangered species.
Massad and Lupo traveled to Africa three times in just over a year. They doubled as hunting trips; Lupo successfully bagged the Big Six — an elephant, rhino, hippo, Cape buffalo, lion and leopard.
The charity, however, never took off. Lupo said restrictions on pharmaceutical imports and exports posed challenges.
Most of the medications that Massad obtained for the charity never made it to Africa, Lupo told state investigators this year. He told the Times he didn’t think anything untoward had occurred, but he also said he didn’t know what happened to the drugs.
Inside City Hall, Massad and Rowe tried to throw their weight around.
Massad asked Lupo whether he could circumvent the city’s process for putting a project out for bid in late January, emails show. Dredging was Massad’s obsession, and he asked about getting a copy of the city’s request for proposals for a canal-dredging project before it was publicly released.
Lupo asked whether that could happen during a meeting with county officials. The officials responded that if Port Richey didn’t follow the right steps, the federal government would not reimburse the city for the projects
City Attorney James Mathieu told Lupo that such a move could have the “appearance of impropriety” and would violate federal law.
“As I explained, this is not a public records issue,” Mathieu wrote, “it is a bidding integrity issue.”
Mathieu told Lupo the city had never released proposals to public officials before posting them publicly.
Lupo then emailed Massad.
“I very strongly recommend that you NOT attempt to coordinate ANY activities with potential vendors!”
On other occasions, Rowe pushed for the city to take enforcement action against community members. And one time, last October, he told Lupo that Lupo needed to reprimand a public works employee for his behavior at a council meeting.
“I understand that tempers were up at last nights meeting,” Rowe wrote. “Regardless of what happens, no employee should act like a two year old and get up and walk out without being excused by the Chair and Council. This arrogant and shameful behaver needs to be reprimanded. I guess that some people think they can do whatever they want. I firmly believe that a write up is in order, and an apology is due to Council. Very disappointed.”
Lupo said he agreed and had already counseled the employee.
An unexpected illness.
The Port Richey City Council has failed not once, not twice but three times to fill Massad’s open council seat in the wake of the arrests of Massad and Rowe.
The first effort flopped in March when City Council member Richard Bloom called in sick for the meeting 20 minutes before its scheduled start time.
The Times investigation revealed that Bloom — a doctor and lawyer — once prescribed Massad’s girlfriend Prozac at the mayor’s request, and also spent time at his house.
Because Massad had resigned and Rowe had been suspended, there were only three people left on the five-person council. All three needed to be present to have enough votes to appoint a replacement.
Audience members shouted the illness was staged. They remarked how embarrassing it was for their city, how stupid it made them look.
Lupo addressed a half dozen television cameras, while angry residents talked to one another in uproar. He dismissed claims that the event was staged. He showed a Times reporter the call from Bloom on his cellphone.
He said the city was doing its best. That its leaders could be trusted. That Port Richey follows the law.
The next week, council members failed to fill the seat again when the trio couldn’t agree on a candidate. Bloom wouldn’t support nominations made by council members Jennie Sorrell and William Dittmer. Bloom nominated a person for the open seat who wasn’t at the meeting. Sorrell wouldn’t go for his pick.
Sorrell accused Bloom, who is running for mayor, of “holding the city hostage.”
At the end of April, a third attempt to fill the open seat failed without any fireworks.