tampabay.com

DCF had no hint of spokesman's troubled history

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER, ALEX LEARY and JESSICA VANDER VELDE, Times Staff Writers
Published February 3, 2008


He was a highly regarded Department of Children and Families spokesman with references in high places.

But the child pornography case against Al Zimmerman has revealed a past that includes charges for drunken driving and grand theft -- prompting DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth to review how the agency vets potential employees.

The DCF did not have a policy of fingerprinting potential employees when Zimmerman was hired two years ago, Butterworth said Saturday. So only after state and local law enforcement officials began investigating the recent pornography allegations did they turn up a DUI arrest in Georgia and an outstanding warrant for grand theft in Texas, where Zimmerman worked as a television reporter until 2001.

"We are reviewing our policies to determine, 'Are we doing adequate background checks?'" Butterworth said.

Details on the previous arrests won't be available until Monday, Butterworth said, but had the agency known of the arrests when Zimmerman applied, "That would have raised a red flag."

On the other hand, he said, "we had other public officers who gave him glowing recommendations, and reporters praised him to me before this. There really weren't any indicators in his background that he would do something like this."

Zimmerman, 40, was charged Friday with eight counts of using a child in a sexual performance, second-degree felonies that could send him to prison for the rest of his life.

He was released Saturday afternoon from the Hillsborough County Jail, where he had been held in lieu of $120,000 bail.

Butterworth fired him Friday.

A DCF spokeswoman said that one of the two victims may have been in the DCF system. The victims are ages 16 to 17.

Zimmerman's affable, outgoing personality garnered him glowing references from law enforcement officials, including future Gov. Charlie Crist, who was attorney general at the time. And after just a year as a regional DCF spokesman, Zimmerman received a stellar evaluation that got him promoted to the state agency's top media relations post, earning $75,000.

But now the people who thought they knew him question their own instincts.

"I felt betrayed," Butterworth said.

"It just blew my socks off," said Hillsborough County Fire Rescue spokesman Ray Yeakley, one of Zimmerman's references for the DCF job. "I was flabbergasted. I thought, 'Well now I can't trust anyone.' Here's a guy who I thought was so nice and friendly, and here it turns out he's a little too friendly."

Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said the investigation began about a month ago when one of the male victims contacted the agency. Investigators in the Tampa police child abuse and sex crimes unit then worked with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the attorney general's child predator cybercrime unit.

A probable cause affidavit states the crimes occurred between December 2005 and July 2007 in Hillsborough County and between October and this month in Orange County.

Zimmerman offered one of the victims in Orange County money to pose for nude photos and masturbate so that he could create child pornography, according to the affidavit. He has admitted the accusations, investigators say.

They believe one of the victims was under the care of the state at some point. "I would lean toward the person being in the system," Butterworth said, declining to elaborate.

McElroy said there might be more victims in Tampa, and Zimmerman could face additional charges. She said there are no other suspects. "He's the focus of the investigation."

FDLE records show Tampa police arrested him in August 2003 on misdemeanor worthless check charges, but dropped the case.

Zimmerman graduated from Syracuse University in 1990 and went to work for WMAZ-TV in Macon, Ga., as a reporter and anchor for the CBS affiliate. In 1995, he moved to the CBS station KENS-TV in San Antonio, Texas, according to his resume.

There, he was remembered for a 1996 piece called "Perverts in the Park."

The segment, shown during that year's November sweeps, included a graphic video of two men engaging in oral sex in a public bathroom. Hundreds of angry viewers called in to complain the footage was inappropriate and should have been better censored.

The piece, the second in a series about park activity, triggered a Federal Communications Commission complaint.

In April 2001, Zimmerman got a reporting job at Bay News 9. It was through that job he met Yeakley of Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.

"We just had a typical guy relationship, nothing outside of work, but you know, sometimes your personalities connect," Yeakley said. "He was just a nice guy."

When called as a reference, Yeakley told DCF officials that Zimmerman is "personable, thorough, upstanding," and noted he does a "great job fostering relationships," according to Zimmerman's personnel file.

Crist, a reference on Zimmerman's 2005 resume, could not be reached. But another reference, former Tampa police spokesman Joe Durkin, was shocked.

"This is someone you would never suspect of breaking the law, much less crimes of this nature," said Durkin, now a spokesman for Bright House Networks.

The DCF hired Zimmerman at $50,000 a year and put him to work as a DCF spokesman in Sumter County.

A March 2006 evaluation for his rookie year found Zimmerman "often" exceeded expectations.

"Local reporters trust that he will be open and honest in his response to their inquiries. Although he assumed the role with little or no knowledge of the DCF programs, he has educated himself and developed an understanding of all programs and business processes."

DCF later that year promoted him to agency spokesman, based in Tallahassee, where he made $75,686 a year.

Zimmerman moved in January 2007 to a rented house at 218 Sinclair Road, a quiet, tree-lined street in Tallahassee.

Interviewed Saturday, neighbors said he was not around much, but they sometimes saw him jogging. Until recently, he had a roommate, also seldom seen.

Next-door neighbor David Anderson and his wife knew something was wrong Thursday evening when a sport utility vehicle pulled up outside the house.

Just before 8 p.m., at least 15 FDLE agents went inside the cream-colored house with green trim. Two hours later they left with a computer, monitor and several boxes, Mr. Anderson said.

"They said they had been watching his computer activity for a while," he said.

Zimmerman has a MySpace page, www.myspace.com/alzim, where he last logged in on Monday.

He says his age as 36, not 40, and lists his status as "swinger" and sexual orientation as "straight."

Under "Who I'd like to meet," he wrote: "Someone who hates to cuddle afterwards."

Staff writer Stephanie Garry contributed to this report.