TAMPA — Tampa police are required to act with integrity.
Department policy says “employees shall not use police authority to resolve personal matters nor the matters of friends, relatives, or neighbors,” except for certain situations such as preventing injury or self-defense.
But what are they supposed to do with tips and information provided by close friends and family?
The integrity policy applies, according to spokeswoman Laura McElroy. The department soon will circulate a reminder memo about that policy in the wake of a State Attorney’s Office report that concluded the recent DUI arrest of a local lawyer was tainted because of the friendship between the head of the DUI unit and a man who tipped police that the attorney might be driving drunk.
McElroy said it’s not a problem for officers to receive tips and information from close friends and family. “We’ll take a tip from anyone who wants to give us a tip,” she said. “What’s critical is how they handle that information. That’s where our integrity policy comes into play.”
McElroy said Police Chief Jane Castor has asked department attorney Kirby Rainsberger to circulate a legal bulletin reminding personnel of the integrity policy and explaining it. This, she said, is standard when there’s an incident that raises policy-related issues. McElroy said Rainsberger was still working on the bulletin Friday and expects to issue it next week.
The attorney, Charles Phillip Campbell Jr., was representing radio personality Todd “MJ” Schnitt in a high-profile libel trial against fellow shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem when he was arrested one night in the middle of the trial.
The investigation report released last week concluded the Jan. 23 DUI arrest was orchestrated by Clem’s legal team in cahoots with Sgt. Raymond Fernandez, the head of the department’s DUI unit.
Fernandez and Adam Filthaut, a lawyer who worked for Adams and Diaco, the firm representing Clem, were longtime close friends. Fernandez said the two have known each other for 14 years, their wives are best friends, Filthaut is godfather to one of Fernandez’s children, and their families “do everything together,” including going on trips.
According to the investigation, Filthaut texted Fernandez the night of the DUI arrest and told him Campbell would be driving drunk. As the night progressed, the two exchanged 92 text messages.
Almost three hours after the first communication between Fernandez and Filthaut, Campbell was arrested. He was moving a car owned by a woman he didn’t know was a paralegal for Adams and Diaco.
Fernandez told investigators he also didn’t know until the next day that Campbell and Filthaut were on opposite sides of the high-profile trial. When he found out, Fernandez said, he “really reamed into” his friend.
Fernandez has been with the department more than 18 years, a sergeant for six years and ran the DUI unit for more than four years. He said he would “most definitely” have acted differently had he known.
Castor removed Fernandez from the DUI unit, decentralized the unit to provide oversight and appointed a team to review open cases made by Fernandez and another officer involved in Campbell’s arrest. Castor said Fernandez showed “bad judgment” by not removing himself from a case involving a friend. She has withheld disciplinary action pending an FBI investigation into possible civil rights violations.
Maki Haberfeld, who chairs the Police Science Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said Fernandez’ actions were, at minimum, unprofessional.
“It’s always a very bad idea when personal relations somehow translate into police action and performance,” he said. “This is the last thing that should be happening. People should not be calling police officers to do them a favor just because they’re friends with them.”
While professional courtesies and favors may be the norm in other jobs, the stakes are too high, given the powers accorded police, Haberfeld said. “It just has tremendous implications,” she said. “When I hear somebody’s calling a police officer to do them a favor, this is the reddest of the red lights.”
Haberfeld agreed with McElroy that the department’s integrity policy directly applies to the Fernandez situation. “This officer used his police authority to resolve a matter for a friend instead of bringing the information to his supervisor — direct violation of their policy and hence should have been disciplined.”
She was skeptical of his claim that he was merely acting on information rather than helping a friend. “Of course he is saying this, but would he wait for somebody for three hours just because that somebody might be charged with DUI? I don’t think so.”
Another professor, James Ruiz at Penn State, who is a retired New Orleans Police officer, said police usually are encouraged to develop confidential informants. “However, I have never heard of a practicing attorney, or anyone for that matter, acting as a CI for a DUI task force. CIs are used for investigations of serious matters such as violent or drug crime. Even at that, police officers are cautioned to be very skeptical of CIs in that they might be informing on their competition or for some other personal reason such as a grudge.”
Haberfeld said many departments have a simple rule that needs to be clearly conveyed to the rank and file, who understand and endorse it: “You don’t take police action based on information that was conveyed to you by your personal friends or family members. You just remove yourself and notify your supervisor because there’s a potential conflict of interest here.”
But Ruiz said he disagrees. “If police receive information concerning a violent crime or a drug shipment from a close friend or family, I do not believe this info need be passed on to someone else. All that does is create another layer and how would the supervisor judge the veracity of the informant?”
For Fernandez, Filthaut had “instant credibility,” he told investigators, “because I knew this person so well.”
The night of Campbell’s arrest, the investigation documented phone records listing hundreds of phone calls and text messages between Melissa Personius, the paralegal, higher ups at the Adams and Diaco law firm, Filthaut and Fernandez. But none of the text messages survived, including those on Fernandez’s phone.
Fernandez told investigators he accidentally deleted all his text messages when he upgraded his phone’s Android operating system the next day.
Fernandez described some of their exchanges.
Filthaut, he said, called him and said the attorney he had told him about before was “out drinking again at night at Malios ... And the last time he drove home or he went home, he actually walked down the street with a bottle of wine and a drink...He’s going to drive home again tonight drunk.”
Fernandez said he responded, “Well, we didn’t get him last time... We’ll sit on him again.”
Fernandez dispatched an officer, and continued to exchange texts with Filthaut. “He’s drinking more,” Fernandez recalled the texts saying. “And there was friendly banter.”
Fernandez said he joked with Filthaut, texting him, “Man, you’re CI. How good are they, getting information.”
Eventually, Fernandez told the officer he’d sent out to go get a meal, and he decided to wait in his patrol car near Malio’s, where he worked on some reports.
He said he was bored and even followed some other cars that left the restaurant, looking for driving errors that would provide a reason to stop them. “If anything else would have happened, we’d have gone,” Fernandez told investigators. “I mean, it wasn’t like a stakeout where we had to sit there. Kind of one of those, it’s early in the night, it was during the week and ain’t nothing else to do.”
All the while, he said, he “got communications pretty consistently” from Filthaut, some of which were banter and others were updates about Campbell. “Hey, he’s leaving.”
So when Campbell drove out in Personius’ gray Nissan with Personius in the passenger seat, Fernandez was behind him. “I followed it northbound,” Fernandez said. “It was driving real slow.” But that wasn’t good enough. “I wouldn’t be able to stop someone for driving slow in downtown Tampa,” he said.
Fernandez said Campbell made a right turn from the center lane, cutting off an SUV, and he turned on his emergency lights.
He had Officer Tim McGinnis complete the arrest.
Fernandez told investigators he texted Filthaut. “Hey, yeah, we got him stopped. Oh, my guy’s arresting him. ... He’s going to jail. Oh, my guy’s putting cuffs on him.”
It was, Fernandez said, “just kind of friendly banter.”