tampabay.com

Second person fired in DCF scandal

A technician who cleaned out the ex-spokesman's computer admits a sexual relationship.

By Kevin Graham, Times Staff Writer
Published February 13, 2008


TAMPA - The Department of Children and Families has fired a second employee connected to an unfolding investigation into the agency's former spokesman, who was arrested Feb. 1 on child pornography charges.

Michael Hernandez, who worked for the DCF as a computer technician, told investigators that he tossed former DCF spokesman Al Zimmerman's home computer in a trash bin because Zimmerman, 40, told him he was afraid of what police would find on them.

Hernandez, who told authorities he had a sexual relationship with Zimmerman, also admitted to wiping clean and reformatting a DCF-issued laptop that Zimmerman used for work, at Zimmerman's request, authorities said.

DCF spokeswoman Erin Geraghty said Tuesday that Hernandez was fired Feb. 1, the same day authorities brought state charges of child pornography against Zimmerman.

Geraghty said that Hernandez had worked for the DCF since 2001 and that he had a clean personnel file. Investigators have not seized any of Hernandez's DCF equipment and he has not been charged with a crime, she said.

Zimmerman had been out on $120,000 bail after being arraigned on state child pornography charges. Federal agents arrested him Monday on federal charges of producing child pornography.

During a hearing in federal court Tuesday about whether to grant Zimmerman bail, Assistant U.S. Attorney Colleen Murphy-Davis said Zimmerman's home computer was apparently thrown into a trash bin behind a downtown Tallahassee dentist office, and it has not been found. Investigators are still working to see whether any files deleted from Zimmerman's work laptop can be recovered.

Lt. Michael Baute of the Attorney General's Office said Hernandez told investigators that he and Zimmerman had a sexual relationship.

If convicted on the federal charges, Zimmerman would get a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in prison. If he's convicted on the eight state charges against him, Zimmerman could get up to 120 years.

The federal case will be prosecuted before the state case.

Authorities said Zimmerman took nude photographs of at least two teen boys, one who has been identified as a foster child in DCF care. He paid them for the pictures he took, saying he planned to sell them to buyers in Germany, England, Sweden and Scotland.

Investigators said thatZimmerman once offered $200 to one of the boys in exchange for oral sex, but the boy refused. Both the victims authorities have identified live in Tampa.

Zimmerman had been living with his parents in his hometown of Lakeland since being released on bail on the state charges. Brian Albritton, one of three finalist for the U.S. attorney job in the Middle District of Florida, is Zimmerman's attorney. He said his client was on his parents' back porch reading a book when he was taken into custody Monday.

Zimmerman's mother, Marilyn Zimmerman, testified at Tuesday's bail hearing about how close she is with her son. She said he has always been helpful to her and his father, and they welcomed the chance for him to stay with them until his case is resolved.

When Murphy-Davis asked Marilyn Zimmerman whether she knew her son was involved in the pornography business, she said she didn't.

"What you've got here is a deceptive and manipulative person," Murphy-Davis told the judge. "The person he has probably deceived the most, he wants to go and live with her at this point."

Before denying Zimmerman's bail request, U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo cited three times where Zimmerman failed to show up for court hearings, including for a case in Texas.

"While working at DCF, Mr. Zimmerman was in fact living two lives," Pizzo said. "To do that, to me, is telling."

Kevin Graham can be reached at kgraham@sptimes.com or 813 226-3433.