TAMPA — Former Tampa police Sgt. Ray Fernandez, fired last month for his role in a high-profile DUI arrest that prosecutors later labeled a setup, wants his job back.
Fernandez filed an appeal with the police department last week. A hearing is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 29.
“I think we have a pretty good shot,” said Owen Kohler, attorney for the Tampa Police Benevolent Association, which is representing Fernandez. “It’s the city’s burden to show just cause existed for his termination. It’s our position that the evidence isn’t there.”
Police Chief Jane Castor fired Fernandez on Sept. 27, citing five grounds for dismissal: lack of truthfulness, misuse of authority and failure to meet the department’s standards of conduct, professional responsibility and philosophy of enforcement.
Fernandez’s grievance says his firing was “arbitrary, capricious, excessive and not progressive in nature.” He is asking to be reinstated to his $92,000-a-year job and given back pay.
The DUI sergeant was fired after an investigation into the events leading to the Jan. 23 arrest of lawyer Philip Campbell, who was in the middle of a high-profile defamation trial between dueling radio hosts “MJ” Todd Schnitt and Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.
The case against Campbell was later dropped when it was revealed the arrest happened after Fernandez received a tip from attorney Adam Filthaut, a close friend of his who worked for the law firm on the other side of the defamation case.
Campbell was arrested after drinking at Malio’s steakhouse in downtown Tampa with a paralegal working for the Adams and Diaco law firm that also employed Filthaut. Campbell was arrested and charged with DUI after he was stopped in the paralegal’s car, which she had asked him to move for her.
Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe later reviewed the case and dropped the charges after concluding Campbell was set up.
Under the grievance process, Fernandez will meet with Assistant Chief John Newman and Major Mike Baumaister, where he’ll get an opportunity to present his side, said police spokeswoman Laura McElroy.
“It’s the officer’s opportunity to clarify anything they feel the department needs to know about his case,” McElroy said.
If the grievance is denied, Fernandez can appeal to the human resources director. If he loses at that level, he can also appeal to an arbitrator that both sides agree upon.
The arbitrator’s decision is binding; however, it can be appealed, although it’s difficult, Kohler said.
The violations could be overturned and the punishment changed. For instance, officials hearing the case could change the firing to a suspension, Kohler said.
Earlier this month, Hillsborough County prosecutors dropped charges in about a dozen drunken driving cases that could have depended heavily on testimony from Fernandez. Supervisors in the state attorney’s office still are reviewing 40 active cases to determine Fernandez’s involvement in those cases.
Tampa police also created a six-member team that is reviewing about 60 active DUI cases that involved Fernandez.