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State attorney considering DUI charge against Port Richey city manager

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Published:   |   Updated: August 1, 2013 at 03:06 PM

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NEW PORT RICHEY - Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe is considering whether to file a drunken driving charge against Port Richey City Manager Tom O'Neill, who was found by police two weekends ago asleep behind the wheel of his SUV.

New Port Richey Police Cpl. William Phillips reported discovering McNeill in his Ford Escape shortly before midnight on July 14 and immediately recognized him as the former New Port Richey city manager who went to work for the city of Port Richey two years ago. The car was in idle. O'Neill, 59, was unresponsive and had a strong odor of alcohol, but instead of being arrested for suspicion of DUI, he was transported to Northbay Hospital, according to police reports.

"The scope of my investigation is to determine whether a DUI took place that night," McCabe said.

The state attorney's office issued a subpoena this week for O'Neill's hospital records.

"He will be notified and have 10 days to object," McCabe said. "If he objects, we'll schedule a probable cause hearing before a judge."

O'Neill would not discuss the details of the night in question. He told The Tampa Tribune he wasn't aware of the subpoena and would not say if he plans to object to the release of his medical records.

McCabe said his office is not looking into whether there was misconduct by any of the officers involved in the case.

"I'm not in a 'Big Brother' situation where I'm telling people how to run their offices," he said. "The only potential criminal situation is the traffic stop."

The incident has raised questions as to whether O'Neill received special treatment because of his position. Phillips, the New Port Richey officer, upon finding O'Neill requested assistance from the Florida Highway Patrol and Pasco Sheriff's Office. Neither had an officer available to respond, so a dispatcher sent a Port Richey police officer.

While there were two New Port Richey officers on the scene, neither had a functioning dashboard camera. Port Richey Officer Lloyd Johanson responded and recorded the situation from his vehicle as officers and first responders tried to revive O'Neill. Johanson also called Port Richey Police Chief Dave Brown, who describes himself as a personal friend of O'Neill.

Phillips attempted to question O'Neill after fire rescue personnel woke the city manager.

"He had difficulty removing his wallet and I observed signs of impairment to include watery bloodshot eyes, dazed expression, slurred speech and the odor commonly associated with alcohol about his person," Phillips wrote. "I asked if he knew where (he) was and he responded, 'I'm fine. I'm fine.' I asked where he was coming from and he responded, 'I'm fine.'"

When officers assisted O'Neill from the car, a video shows him unable to stand on his own. Phillips could not administer a field sobriety test, according to his report.

Though there's no mention in the report, Brown has acknowledged telling New Port Richey officers his friend was taking medication for a medical condition. He followed the ambulance to the hospital and later gave O'Neill a ride home. Johanson drove O'Neill's car to his house, and Phillips returned the car keys to O'Neill at the hospital.

There was no breath test to determine blood-alcohol content, and because O'Neill wasn't charged with drunken driving his blood was not preserved as evidence.

Brown declined to speak to a news reporter. His second-in-command, Capt. Don Young, said his chief "did not exert any undue influence in this situation." New Port Richey Police always had jurisdiction, and they chose to close the case.

"There has to be an arrest to take a breath test," Young said. He said Phillips could have ordered a blood-alcohol test at the hospital, but chose not to do so.

"Did the chief make a mistake by driving to the scene that night? Yes. But it was an error in judgment - not to preclude Mr. O'Neill from being arrested for DUI," Young said.

New Port Richey Police Chief Kim Bogart said he is conducting an internal review to make sure his officers followed department policy. "The officer made contact with the fire department and based on the information shared by Chief Brown that Mr. O'Neill took medication, the officer made his decision," Bogart said. "I am looking at all that."

Bogart said Phillips maintained control of the scene, but the situation "got very complicated " because of Chief Brown's involvement.

McCabe said a "hospital blood draw" is different from a "legal draw." In a DUI case, blood would be drawn at the hospital and then taken to a different lab to be screened for blood alcohol content and other drugs. "We don't know what they tested for," he said. "If they drew blood for treatment reasons, they wouldn't preserve the blood. They might not test for blood-alcohol content."

McCabe said he expects to get the results in about two weeks.

In the meantime, Port Richey's mayor and city council could decide whether to discipline O'Neill. O'Neill disclosed the incident to the mayor and council by phone but it was not discussed at their July 23 meeting.

"I expect it will come up at the next meeting," Vice Mayor Bill Colombo said.

O'Neill said his medical condition is "between me and my doctor." Though he has apprised the city attorney and members of the council.

Colombo said he was aware of O'Neill's ongoing medical issues and said the manager's description of the event was consistent with what he saw on the video. Still, he said, it was alarming.

"I think anyone would be alarmed by a video of someone who is obviously unresponsive to a very large degree," Colombo said.

lkinsler@tampatrib.com

(813) 371-1852

Twitter @LKinslerTBO

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