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Suspensions, criminal investigation and questions surround narcotics unit

11:32 PM, Mar 6, 2012   |    comments
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CLEARWATER, Florida -- "Stolen money," "destruction of evidence," "criminal trespass," and "lying" are not exactly the adjectives you want describing a law enforcement agency, much less your narcotics unit.

"They're out there doing whatever they feel they need to do," says defense attorney John Trevena. Trevena is leveling those charges against the narcotics unit at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

"There definitely appears to be a lot of problems in that unit and we still don't know how high up the chain of command those problems reach, but pretty much the street detectives are acting on their own," says Trevena.

Trevena points to a Progress Energy helmet and a Progress Energy shirt that Detective Paul Giovannoni admits in a deposition he wore to make contact with a gentleman as a ruse to investigate a narcotics case. Trevena maintains there was nothing criminal going on.

"There is some corruption going on in the narcotics department," says another defense attorney, Jerry Theophilopoulos, who's had several cases dealing with the Pinellas County Sherriff's Narcotics Unit. "Let's burn the constitution. Why did the founding fathers of this country have the constitution? To protect your rights, my rights," he says.

The Pinellas County sheriff agrees, especially when talking about the Progress Energy stunt. "What makes that situation improper is the homeowner was not in the position to make a knowing and voluntary decision whether he wanted to open his door for law enforcement because he thought the person standing there was from Progress Energy," says Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, adding that law enforcement officers have to play by the rules and have the upmost ethics and do the right thing all the time.

Gualtieri is also upset about video from Telemundo Televison found on the DVR of a suspect. The recording was created by narcotics detectives after they confiscated a home surveillance DVR by a man arrested for growing marijuana and recorded over the video he had on it. The suspect contends the recording shows detectives made an illegal search of his property.

"First of all, you can't destroy anything and our position was two detectives went over the fence at that particular incident where they destroyed that evidence," says Mike Peasley, a private investigator who had close to 25 years with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

Peasley maintains the recording that was recorded over would have shown evidence of trespassing by detectives of the Pinellas County Narcotics Unit. When asked if he thought they destroyed the evidence, Peasely says, "Absolutely. When cops break the rules, they are no different than the criminals. They are the criminals. Just because you have a gun and a badge on it doesn't make it right for you violate people's rights and you can't do that and getting away with that it is totally wrong."

Sheriff Gualtieri suspended the sergeant in charge of that operation for 40 hours and moved him out of the narcotics unit. "Any time anyone does something that is contrary to policy or isn't following the law, it gives you concern," he says.

Guiltieri is also concerned about allegations that former narcotics detective Jeff McConaughey pocketed money intended for a confidential informant.

"There's supposed to be two detectives present while you pay (the informant) so that he can't say he didn't get paid or so the detective can't pocket the money," says Peaseley.

But an investigation revealed not only did McConaughey violate the "two detectives" rule, he also forged a signature. He resigned before being fired, but he is not alone in violating the rules. Deputy Jason Barrett paid a confidential informant without a "witness detective" and had another deputy, Michael Papamichael, sign the payment receipt as a witness without ever seeing the transaction, leading to both of them getting suspended by the sheriff.

"I can't explain it. I think once you get involved in lies and try to cover up this and cover up that, and then you've got a big cover up," says Peasley.

While the narcotics unit has been revamped since these incidents have taken place, the sheriff is requiring everyone in the unit to attend two meetings, one with an attorney for the sheriff's office to explain constitutional rights -- particularly in dealing with undercover informants -- and the other headed by the sheriff himself so he could explain what is acceptable and not acceptable in trying to get drug dealers off the street.

"I wanted to reiterate what my expectations are what we expect and what absolutely will not be tolerated in this office," says Gualitieri.

These incidents that are just now coming to light happened before Guiltieri was appointed sheriff at the end of last year. It appears that some things were tolerated that not only violated department policy, but also appear to have violated citizens' rights and the law. 

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