TAMPA — Prosecutors have dropped 11 of 12 misdemeanor charges against a Tampa clergyman accused of signing off on probationers’ community service documents in exchange for allowing his groping hugs.
Bishop Charles Leigh said this proves he was railroaded by an overzealous police department intent on stopping him from ministering to poor and homeless people in Tampa’s Sulphur Springs neighborhood.
“It’s all a smear job,” Leigh said in a telephone interview Monday.
Prosecutors reviewed the charges initially filed by Tampa police and are proceeding on a single count of making false official statements, Assistant State Attorney Mark Cox said.
“We have enough evidence to go forward with the one count,” Cox said.
Leah, 64, heads the Apostolic Catholic Church, 7813 N. Nebraska Ave., which is not associated with the Roman Catholic Church.
Tampa police arrested Leigh in July after receiving a tip he was asking for sexual favors in exchange for falsifying the community service documents that criminal defendants must produce to show they are meeting the terms of their release.
Police said an undercover officer posing as a defendant on felony probation was sent into the church and met with Leigh in June.
Leigh signed paperwork saying the undercover officer had put in 17 hours of community service when she had not. In return, Leigh asked for and received groping hugs, police said.
Again the officer was sent in, police said, and Leigh credited her with putting in 33 community service hours in exchange for three strong hugs.
Leigh said the officer came in with a story about how she was taking care of a 13-year-old troubled girl who had attempted suicide.
“I told her, ‘You are taking care of that 13-year-old,’ ” Leigh said. “To me that’s community service.
“My contract with state Department of Corrections says it’s totally up to me what constitutes community service. This just shows you that if they want you, they get you.”
He said a hug was involved.
“She initiated it,” Leigh said. “I hug people all the time. Even during services here, I hug people. There was no kind of sexual contact. What do you do when a lady hugs you? You let her hug you.”
In an email to the Tribune, Leigh said, “Police authorities even admit to accepting an effort to have one of their agents seduce me into having sex with her. I declined.”
He also said police confiscated his computer, looking for incriminating information.
“There is none,” he said.
A court hearing is scheduled for Oct. 31.
Tampa police stand by their investigation and deny they targeted Leigh to get him out of the neighborhood.
“That church does a lot of great outreach in that community,” said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy. “It’s just unfortunate they have a leader who’s breaking the law.
“We conducted our operation after receiving complaints of him falsifying probation documents in exchange for inappropriate contact.”
Leigh said his congregation is made up of about 50 regular members and that each Sunday people come in off the street to attend.
After his arrest, he said, he lost one member, but four former members returned to the flock.
“I’ve had a net gain of three,” he said.