TAMPA — The Federal Bureau of Investigation has not yet completed its investigation into a DUI arrest later labeled a setup, but Tampa police Chief Jane Castor said she had received enough information from the federal agency to fire Tampa police Sgt. Ray Fernandez on Friday.
“I can’t convey the level of disappointment that I felt when the FBI investigation revealed that Sgt. Fernandez’s role was significantly more than he conveyed to me, the organization and to the entire criminal justice system,” Castor said. “We are taking assertive action today, prior to the decision of the FBI, because we owe it to the integrity of the department and to the trust of the community that we serve.”
Fernandez, who had been the supervisor of the department’s DUI unit, 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.
The police department said Fernandez was fired because he was not truthful with investigators. In particular, the department cited the deletion of text messages between Fernandez and Filthaut.
The sergeant told investigators the messages were inadvertently deleted when he installed new software on his phone, police said. But Castor said FBI investigators looking into the case said installing the software wouldn’t have deleted the text messages.
“Any teenager with a smart phone can tell you this isn’t possible,” Castor said.
When he was questioned under oath during the investigation, Fernandez said he only communicated once with Filthaut after Campbell’s arrest - the next morning, once he realized Campbell’s role in the high-profile defamation case and that Filthaut’s firm represented the other side.
But Tampa police said cell phone records show there were multiple text messages between the two on the morning of Jan. 24, followed by a nine-minute phone call between Fernandez and Filthaut. The two also had a three-minute conversation that evening that Fernandez never mentioned in his testimony, police said.
“This evidence shows that Sgt. Fernandez lost his impartiality and professionalism in dealing with this case,” Castor said. “It is absolutely unacceptable behavior.”
Fernandez’s attorney, Chip Purcell, said his client was stunned when he learned Friday that he had been fired. He said Fernandez plans to fight his dismissal.
“The allegation that there was something improper that occurred between he and Mr. Filthaut is not true and is not substantiated by any evidence and is not substantiated by any of the witness testimony,” Purcell said.
Last week, the police department’s Complaint Review Board voted three to two that Fernandez wasn’t in violation of the department’s policy on truthfulness. Purcell said that was the only violation out of the five Fernandez faced that could have gotten him fired.
“He’s certainly stunned and surprised that the chief would overrule the Complaint Review Board and terminate him,” Purcell said.
Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said the Complaint Review Board is made up of two officers chosen by Fernandez, two chosen by the department and and one that they both agreed upon.
“Most of the time on the Complaint Review Board there are votes in favor of the officers because they pick officers who are going to side with them,” McElroy said. “The final decision rests on the chief and the executive staff.’’
Mark O’Brien, an attorney for Filthaut, said Fernandez did nothing wrong and should not have been fired.
“The citizens of Tampa should look forward to his reinstatement to the police force, as our community will be much safer once he(’s) allowed to resume patrolling the roadways for DUI offenders,” O’Brien said in an email.
Campbell’s attorney, John Fitzgibbons, said the firing of Fernandez should only be a first step.
“The dominoes are starting to fall,” Fitzgibbons said in a statement. “We are beginning to see that those involved in the set up arrest of Philip Campbell are facing the consequences of their actions. The case is far, far from over, and I anticipate there will be consequences for others in the future.”
Castor said the FBI is continuing to investigate the case. A six-member team created last month to review Fernandez’s and McGinnis’s previous DUI arrests are still continuing to study the cases and will submit a report later, she said.
Castor also announced Friday that another officer had been fired in a separate case. Det. Jeanette Hevel was arrested Friday afternoon and charged with grand theft. She is accused of stealing $1,900 in IRS money orders that had been placed in the department’s evidence room.
“It’s a bitter disappointment to announce today that we have terminated two Tampa police officers for two different cases of wrongdoing,” Castor said. “One broke the law and the other broke the code of conduct by conducting himself without professionalism or integrity. Neither deserves to serve in this agency that represents the very best in law enforcement.”