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Monday, May 21, 2018
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New team to review dozens of Tampa DUI cases

TAMPA — A specially created team will review nearly three dozen open DUI cases made by the Tampa police sergeant and officer whose arrest of lawyer Philip Campbell has been labeled a setup.

Police Chief Jane Castor on Tuesday announced the formation of the six-person team. The group will review four open cases by Tampa police Sgt. Ray Fernandez and 30 by officer Tim McGinnis.

Those two officers were involved in the Jan. 23 arrest of Campbell, who was in the midst of a high-profile defamation case involving dueling shock jocks. Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe reviewed Campbell’s arrest and dropped charges after concluding Campbell was set up.

Castor said the creation of what she called the DUI review team is needed to restore the public’s confidence in her department.

“It has cast a shadow not only on our DUI unit, but our department as a whole,” Castor said. “We have to restore confidence. I take full responsibility with any issue surrounding this.”

Assistant Police Chief John Bennett will head the DUI review team, which also includes retired Circuit Court Judge Barbara Fleischer, the Attorney General’s statewide prosecutor Nick Cox, Dean Register with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and former Tampa police DUI supervisors Sgt. Doug Groves and Lt. Eric Ward.

After reviewing the 34 open cases by Fernandez and McGinnis, the team also will review a random sample of DUI arrests made by from other officers in the department.

The team’s findings will be forwarded to the State Attorney’s Office for review, Castor said.

McCabe’s investigation found that Fernandez had a connection with the legal team of Adams and Diaco, which represented Bubba The Love Sponge Clem during the defamation trial earlier this year. Campbell was the lawyer for Clem’s rival, Todd “MJ” Schnitt.

Campbell was arrested after drinking at Malio’s steakhouse in downtown Tampa with a paralegal working for the Adams and Diaco firm.

The paralegal, Melissa Personius, was “extremely flirtatious” with Campbell and bought him drinks, according to investigative documents. Personius then persuaded Campbell to move her car, investigators said. An attorney from Adams and Diaco, Adam Filthaut, had already called his good friend Fernandez, who lay in wait for Campbell, the documents said.

Filthaut and Fernandez, whose wives have been best friends since high school, had texted each other 92 times while waiting for Campbell to leave the bar, according to McCabe’s investigation.

But Fernandez said he didn’t know until the next day that Campbell was involved in the Bubba trial. When he saw that on the news, he was upset because he knew Filthaut had been doing work in that case.

Even then, Fernandez said, he assumed Campbell and Filthaut were on the same side.

When Filthaut told him they were on opposing sides, Fernandez said he told him, “You don’t think you should have told me that?”

Filthaut’s response, he said, was, “Ray, what’s the big deal?”

Fernandez said he told him, “’Are you kidding me?’ I mean, I really reamed into him… to the point where he became defensive.’’

Fernandez said if he had known of that connection, he would have behaved differently. “I probably wouldn’t even been out there, to be honest with you,” he said. “‘Cause I know what the ramifications are politically to something like that.”

Fernandez said he “most definitely” felt like he was used that night. “I feel like I got drug through the mud.”

The police department’s official report of Campbell’s arrest makes no mention of McCabe’s findings that Fernandez and Filthaut were sending text messages to each other.

Fernandez wrote in the report that he was stopped at Ashley Drive and Madison Street, a few blocks away from the steakhouse, when he first “observed the suspect vehicle...pulling out of the Malio’s valet area.”

The car, a Nissan sedan, was in the outside lane as it turned east on Cass Street, cutting in front of another vehicle in the inside lane, Fernandez wrote. That’s when the DUI sergeant pulled the car over and noticed Campbell was unsteady on his feet, with glassy, bloodshot eyes, the report said.

Fernandez and McGinnis, who assisted Fernandez with Campbell’s arrest, have since been reassigned, Castor said. No disciplinary action will be considered until the FBI completes a separate investigation into the incident, she said.

The two officers “deserve due process just like everybody else,” Castor said, but promised she would take “any corrective actions that are necessary.”

Tampa attorney John Fitzgibbons, who represents Campbell, said Castor’s DUI review team “appears to be a baby step... I hope in the right direction.” Fitzgibbons is calling for an independent review of the DUI unit that does not include Tampa police officers on the team.

“There’s been zilch, zero disciplinary action taken,” Fitzgibbons said. “This is moving at a snail’s pace and I can’t understand that.”

Mayor Bob Buckhorn said in a statement Tuesday that the creation of the DUI review team, plus Castor’s recent decision to decentralize the DUI, “can assure the public that the Tampa Police Department handles DUI cases appropriately and that the department will continue to serve our community with the integrity and professionalism that it is recognized for.”

“The actions of any one individual should not reflect on the entire department,’’ Buckhorn said. “The fate of the officer involved in the incident will be determined at a later date, but the larger issue of how the DUI unit operates is being dealt with today. Rest assured that if the investigation proves incompetence or a gross violation of the officer involved, actions will be swift and appropriate.”

Tribune reporter Elaine Silvestrini contributed to this report.

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