PORT RICHEY — Two of this city's mayors have been arrested, and on Thursday state agents revealed why:
Ex-mayor Dale Massad, accused of firing at Pasco County deputies during a raid on his home last month, conspired with his successor, acting Mayor Terrence Rowe, to intimidate a Port Richey police officer at the center of Massad's legal woes, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The two mayors discussed what to do about the officer during a March 3 call placed at about 10:50 p.m. from the Pasco jail, according to Massad's arrest report.
"I don't know why, but he is in on everything," Massad said of the officer.
"I'm on it," Rowe replied.
Massad said anything Rowe could do for him would be "good."
"You know, this doesn't go down without somebody answering for it," Rowe replied.
Massad was arrested Feb. 21 on charges of practicing medicine without a license and attempted murder. Rowe took over as mayor, and on Wednesday became the second Port Richey mayor to be arrested in 20 days. He faces charges that include obstruction of justice.
The county jail might not be the ideal place to concoct such a scheme, however. Every time an inmate makes a call, according to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, both hear this warning:
"This call will be recorded and is subject to monitoring at anytime."
Massad's house was raided after state agents said they received a tip that he was practicing medicine without a license. Records show an undercover operation was set up for Massad to treat someone feigning a knee injury. The officer, who authorities have not identified, was allegedly treated by Massad.
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The recorded phone call came up at a court hearing at the West Pasco Judicial Center in nearby New Port Richey on Thursday. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Mary Handsel was asked to address several issues in the Massad and Rowe cases.
Massad's defense attorneys, Bjorn Brunvand and Denis M. deVlaming, argued the two mayors discussed nothing illegal.
"What else could he mean?" the judge asked deVlaming. She added: "How is that not tampering?"
The defense argued that Massad had no reason to target the officer. Why then, the judge asked, did the two mayors talk about the officer in the first place? In turn, deVlaming said Massad doesn't believe that officer should be on the force.
Massad stood stonefaced during much of the hearing, occasionally peering back into the courtroom gallery. He has been held without bail since his Feb. 21 arrest. The defense had asked the judge to set bail.
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The state said the new charge of conspiracy resulting from the jailhouse phone call incident is why he should remain held without bail, and Handsel agreed. Massad shook his head and grimaced as she ruled against him.
The arrests of two mayors has put Port Richey in a vice grip. Officials aren't sure what to do next.
"This is incredible," City Council member Jennie Sorrel said. "All I can say is, 'Wow.'"
The City Council will consult with the city's attorney about what to do next, Sorrell said. Unless Rowe resigns, she said, he will remain mayor. "This is uncharted territory for this little city," Sorrell said.
Meanwhile, in court filings and in the courtroom, Brunvand and deVlaming signaled what may serve as Massad's defense at a trial: that the ex-mayor believed "someone posing as the police" was trying to break into his home on Hayward Lane, which led him to fire gunshots as a SWAT team raided his house. (They deny he fired at the deputies themselves.)
Massad and a woman staying with him were awoken by the deputies outside, the defense said. Massad had reported burglaries at his home in the past, the lawyers said, so he believed they were in danger from intruders breaking in.
The ex-mayor armed himself. Then when he heard an explosion, they said he fired two warning shots down the hallway. The lawyers said it would have been impossible for Massad to shoot toward the door and the deputies, as alleged by the Sheriff's Office.
"No police officer was ever in danger," the attorneys said in a document. They also argued that Massad didn't know who was at his door, thus he could not have tried to commit premeditated murder. Massad faces five counts of attempted murder for firing gunshots during the raid.
During Thursday's hearing, Handsel said Massad had been moved to the medical wing of the Land O'Lakes Detention Center but did not say why. His attorneys have expressed concern about his physical health. Brunvand also said Massad "appeared to be delusional" during a recent visit.
Massad, who also faces four counts of practicing medicine without a license, now faces two new counts of criminal conspiracy and using a two-way communication device as part of a crime.
Rowe faces charges of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice and using a two-way communication device as part of a crime. He was freed from jail after posting $15,000 bail. He could not be reached for comment by phone Thursday. No one answered the door at his home.
Contact Justin Trombly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @JustinTrombly.