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Tampa uncuffed

Where there's smoke, there aren't firings

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published March 3, 2005


The recent happenings within Tampa Fire Rescue suggest that the city's stance on truth, wrongdoing and punishment is subjective.

On Tuesday, fire Chief Dennis Jones announced he would not discipline two fire captains (former high-ranking fire union members) for their roles in the attempted coverup of an October firehouse scandal involving two strippers, five firefighters, a fire truck and a camera.

Jones said administrators didn't have enough evidence against Frank Settecasi and Tracy Walker, that it was a case of conflicting stories.

Settecasi and Walker insisted in written statements that they called firefighters Steve Johnson and Michael Layton to "offer support and concern" as the men came under fire for their alleged roles in the Oct. 17 stripper photo shoot.

Johnson and Layton said the two union leaders called not for support, but to urge them to lie to investigators.

Jones never actually interviewed Settecasi and Walker, and he didn't follow up with questions after getting their written statements.

Faced with the differing accounts, Jones and Mayor Pam Iorio this week let Settecasi and Walker off the hook.

Those same city officials suspended Johnson, Layton and two other firefighters for the stripper incident - even though the six-week investigation was full of conflicting stories.

The men initially denied taking part in the stripper photo session. They claimed pressure from Capt. Al Suarez (another longtime union member and former leader) to lie.

In a second round of interviews, the four firefighters told investigators they lied because they felt "coerced" by Suarez, a higher-ranking firefighter with deep political connections.

Iorio attended Suarez's wedding.

"This guy is politically connected," Johnson said, "and I'm nobody."

When city officials finally nailed down Suarez's role as leader in the Oct. 17 incident at Station 21 in New Tampa, they gave him a break even as they punished him.

They fired Suarez but let him use vacation time until Feb. 12 - the date of his 20th year with the department - so he could retire with an annual pension of $44,000.

Last month, Iorio called the punishment of Suarez and the other four firefighters "appropriate." The worst part of the whole incident, she told the Times, "was the attempt to cover it up."

Iorio also said she considered it appropriate not to punish Chief Jones for sending personal e-mails - one of a bikini-clad woman on all fours and another of giraffes having sex - from his city computer in 2003, when he was airport fire chief.

* * *

The U.S. Navy petty officer who slammed into jogger Melissa McKenzie on Bayshore Boulevard last year will go to prison for five years under a plea agreement reached this week, but McKenzie's widow does not consider the case closed.

Billy McKenzie has hired attorney Rick Terrana to pursue a civil suit "against anybody and everybody we think should be held responsible for her death," Terrana said.

That includes William Napier, who pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide but is seeking an honorable discharge from the military so he can get his full pension.

Terrana said the city of Tampa also might be a target.

McKenzie's family is angry that more than a year after her death, Bayshore hasn't changed much. Many of the recommendations of a task force formed to review safety along the popular pedestrian stretch were not followed. Instead, the mayor late last year announced that the city will spend $200,000 on a public awareness campaign, signs and sidewalks on the west side of Bayshore.

Iorio did not agree to install traffic and pedestrian signals, and the city didn't lower the speed limit along Bayshore from 40 mph to 35 mph, as the task force urged.

"You have a road in an area of the city that's been so heavily used for recreation for so long," Terrana said. "To allow it to continue after not only this tragedy but others is just unacceptable. The fixes are not as complicated as the city wants us to believe."

* * *

Judge Paul Huey knows his holidays, or at least he thought he did.

On Monday morning, Washington's Birthday, the clock struck 9 in Huey's courtroom. People were waiting, but Huey was nowhere to be found.

Turns out he was home, thinking he and all the other Hillsborough County judges had the day off.

"My wife had it off. My kids, too," Huey said this week. "So I thought we did."

As soon as someone from the courthouse called him at home to ask where he was, he rushed over and was on the bench by 9:30 a.m., he said.

"I handled the whole docket," he said. "It was fine."

Contact Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler at 813 226-3373 or svansickler@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 3, 2005, 01:00:10]


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