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Port Richey’s police chief is gone. Was it retirement or revenge?

The police chief says he was forced out. The city manager says he retired. It’s the latest chapter in Port Richey strife and dysfunction.

PORT RICHEY — The chief never thought it would end this way.

Gerard DeCanio spent half a century in policing and firefighting. In late 2016, he became chief of the Port Richey Police Department, one last stop before retirement.

That is where his career ended — but not on his terms.

The police chief says he was forced to retire by City Manager Vince Lupo in an effort to protect the mayor. There are allegations that Lupo abused his power and silenced police whistleblowers. There are also accusations of misbehavior by Mayor Scott Tremblay, including an incident where city police officers said they saw him driving a golf cart while intoxicated.

It is the latest chapter of political strife and dysfunction in a city well known for it. Last year’s chapter was the most dramatic yet, with two mayors jailed amid accusations of attempted murder and conspiracy. Then Tremblay came on board and vowed to rehabilitate the city’s image. Months later, against the backdrop of the pandemic, city hall is back at it.

The central characters in this latest conflict played supporting roles in last year’s scandals. Lupo was tight with former mayor Dale Massad, who awaits trial on charges of attempted murder, accused of firing at the SWAT team that stormed his house in 2019.

Related: Drugs, guns and politics collided in the small town of Port Richey. Two mayors went to jail.

DeCanio’s agency helped investigate Massad for the unlicensed practice of medicine, which led to the SWAT raid. Then Massad’s successor as mayor was arrested after both were caught on a jail phone call plotting to intimidate a Port Richey officer involved in the investigation.

Now DeCanio wonders if he was removed as payback for the Massad investigation — or to protect Tremblay.

“What,” the chief said, “do they think I’m the mayor-shredder?”

• • •

If there’s a single event that started this latest contretemps, it may be when the mayor was riding his golf cart around the city’s waterfront on Nov. 24. What happened that night, and in the months that followed, were detailed in an interview with DeCanio and two memos. One was written by the chief and the other by former Port Richey police Sgt. Patrick Alu.

That evening, according to Alu’s memo, three officers on his squad reported seeing Tremblay repeatedly driving his golf cart between a local bar and a Hooters.

Riding with Tremblay was a Port Richey detective named Kenny Howard — the officer who went undercover in the Massad investigation and who was the subject of the ex-mayor’s threats.

Alu wasn’t there that night. But he said his officers told him that, while they were struggling to arrest someone, the golf cart stopped nearby.

The mayor and detective, they said, were “extremely intoxicated.”

The officers said they told them not to drink and drive. “We see you,” said someone in the golf cart, though the memo didn’t say who. Then it drove off.

Former Port Richey Police Chief Gerard DeCanio listens to a resident's comment while attending a 2019 Port Richey City Council meeting. The chief says he was forced to retire by the city manager. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Alu said he reported this to the chief, who said he’d talk to the city manager. Soon, Alu wrote, the city manager started harassing him.

He said Lupo called him into his office multiple times, used foul language, berated the sergeant’s appearance, ridiculed his charity work and accused Alu of angling to become the next chief.

Lupo told Alu that he constantly watched him, the memo said, and threatened to fire him. After 21 years on the force — not long enough under state law to qualify for his full pension — Alu took early retirement in March. He wrote that he did so “due to fears of being terminated because of retaliation against me.”

In February, according to the chief’s memo, an officer saw Tremblay and Howard driving around in the mayor’s off-road vehicle. The officer said he had previously warned the mayor that the vehicle wasn’t street legal.

Then on April 4, DeCanio wrote, as officers were gathered at the Sand Pebble Pointe Condominiums to respond to a call there, the mayor drove by in the same vehicle and waved. Tremblay owns a home nearby.

Days later, the chief wrote, the city manager confronted him about why the officers were gathered there. Lupo, the chief said, told him the mayor, city attorney and several residents had all called him about it and said that DeCanio’s job was on the line.

When the chief asked why, he said Lupo referred to a “sting” against the mayor.

“What sting?” DeCanio said he told Lupo. “There is no sting.”

“I think that the mayor may have thought that yes, they were there to get him,” the chief said of the April incident.

On April 13, the chief said, Lupo met with him and told him he was to retire on May 1. DeCanio said he offered to stay on for three months longer. The pandemic was still a problem, and he said he had taken on some debt to help his late sister-in-law’s cancer treatments.

He said Lupo didn’t give him a choice.

Related: Port Richey's new mayor hopes to restore city's image
Port Richey Mayor Scott Tremblay is congratulated after Pasco legislators table a bill calling for a referendum to decide whether to dissolve the city in 2019. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Tremblay, a former prosecutor, said he has never driven while under the influence and strongly disapproves of drunk driving. He believes Alu has it out for him, because the former sergeant was disciplined in a case Tremblay prosecuted.

"I feel this is retaliation against me,'' Tremblay said.

He said he has never been stopped before in his off-road vehicle or golf cart, and that both currently have legal permits to be driven on city streets. The mayor declined to comment on the chief’s situation.

Lupo announced DeCanio’s retirement at an April 20 city council meeting, with no public notice or fanfare.

Moments later, City Council member Todd Maklary pointed to a letter from the West Central Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents Port Richey officers, which said DeCanio was being “removed.”

Maklary asked the chief to delay his retirement to help the city deal with COVID-19. But before the chief could answer, the city manager cut off Maklary.

“That is not his choice, sir,” Lupo said. “That’s my choice.”

• • •

The council agreed then to discuss the police chief’s departure at the next meeting. That took place Tuesday, in half-empty chambers. Lupo, Tremblay, another council member and the city attorney spread out for social distancing. Maklary and two other council members called in.

Maklary asked DeCanio and Lupo to write memos detailing the events leading up to the chief’s retirement. Both agreed, though Lupo never wrote his.

Maklary started discussing DeCanio’s retirement and memo. But Tremblay stopped him.

“I don’t know if that’s appropriate,” the mayor said.

The city charter gives the city manager full discretion to hire and fire, Tremblay said, so personnel issues were beyond the council’s purview. Two other council members, vice mayor William Dittmer and Jennie Sorrell, agreed.

Maklary said Lupo may have violated the law by pushing the chief out.

“I have very grave concerns because I received multiple reports (that) the reason for Chief DeCanio’s firing is to cover up possible public safety violations by certain members of council,” Maklary said. “That falls directly under the whistleblower statute.”

Port Richey City Manager Vincent Lupo listens while attending a 2019 City Council meeting. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Maklary suggested the council fire Lupo. Nobody backed him up.

Lupo denied all the allegations made against him by the chief, Alu and Maklary.

Council member Tom Kinsella said the situation “truly stinks.” He said concerned residents have bombarded him with phone calls about the chief’s retirement. He believes the city needed to be more transparent, and asked Lupo to let DeCanio serve for a few more months.

The city manager said he and the chief “came to a gentlemen’s agreement, and that agreement was he was submitting his letter of retirement.”

Maklary demanded council allow DeCanio to speak via phone. The chief repeated the story that the city manager accused him of conducting “some sort of sting.”

“The conversation turned right away to when did I intend to retire,” DeCanio said. “I would never have turned my back on this city and walked out in two weeks.”

The chief again offered to stay for a little while longer. The meeting ended with no decision.

DeCanio’s last day was Thursday.

• • •

This is Lupo’s second stint as city manager. He held that job for several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Back then, he oversaw the unceremonious departure of another police chief.

In 2003, he fired then-police chief Bill Downs, citing insubordination and misconduct. But 18 months later, an arbitrator overruled Lupo, ordered the city to re-hire Downs as second-in-command and give him back pay. Lupo was already gone, having been fired after hiring an unlicensed building official.

It was Massad who prompted the council to re-hired Lupo as city manager in 2016. They had served on the board of a nonprofit that never got off the ground in the early 2000s. They went hunting together in Africa. Lupo gave Massad a gun in 2017. He also gave Massad a $1,200 check weeks before his arrest which he told the Times was to buy a gun.

Related: In return run, city manager vows to move Port Richey forward

Last year, law enforcement officials looking into Massad were told Lupo warned the then-mayor about their investigation. Lupo told the Times last year that he doesn’t recall doing that.

On Wednesday afternoon, a parade of well-wishers drove by the police station in support of DeCanio. They flew flags and signs. A fire rescue member spontaneously hugged the chief.

DeCanio said he felt vindicated, that the public understood he didn’t want to leave like this.

“I’m the kind of guy that likes to stay away from drama,” he said.

Residents held a parade Wednesday to show their support for Port Richey Police Chief Gerard DeCanio. He says he was forced to retire by the city manager. [ MICHELE MILLER | Times ]