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Grand jury to question officials

On the jury's list are the Port Richey city manager and some present or former City Council members.

By MATTHEW WAITE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 2001


PORT RICHEY -- A grand jury investigating the Port Richey Building Department will hear from the city's top administrator on Thursday as well as all or most of the City Council members in place last summer.

City Manager Vince Lupo received a subpoena Tuesday morning from the grand jury, and current council members Pat Guttman and Joe Menicola both received invitations last week.

Guttman and Menicola both said that former council member Tom Brown also had received a subpoena, but when reached at home Tuesday, Brown wouldn't confirm that.

"I'm not at liberty to say anything," he said.

The four will join former acting mayor and current mayoral candidate Bob Leggiere and others Thursday to testify before the grand jury, which started its inquiry into the Building Department last week.

Also scheduled to appear is Greg Schneider, the former Port Richey Building Official who complained about Leggiere interfering with his work -- which Leggiere denied -- and brought the whole investigation into the public in July.

What the grand jury is investigating so far is a matter of secrecy, but in letters to a judge and to Leggiere, the grand jury has said they were investigating "matters in the city of Port Richey" and "allegations of improprieties affecting the Building Department."

So far, Port Richey Police Chief William Downs, who started the investigation, and former Building Officials Rune Lero and Ralph Zanello have testified before the grand jury.

Neither the grand jury, nor the State Attorney's Office has revealed who or what the target of the investigation is, but issuing subpoenas or invitations reveals who has immunity and who doesn't. Under the law, a subpoena carries with it immunity from prosecution; an invitation doesn't.

So far, Lupo, Brown and Downs have been subpoenaed; Leggiere, Schneider, Menicola and Guttman have received invitations. Zanello and Lero's status could not be confirmed by the Times.

Menicola said Wednesday that he will go Thursday afternoon with the attorney who represented him when the State Attorney's Office first asked him to come answer questions in October: New Port Richey lawyer J. Larry Hart.

Hart was hired by Menicola, Guttman and Brown when state investigators first called. Brown went to the state attorney and answered questions, and quit the council days later. Menicola and Guttman both refused to go without a subpoena, on Hart's advice.

Under city ordinances, Hart's bill was paid by local taxpayers. And Menicola and Guttman said they have contacted him again.

"I'm not being invited down there as Joe Menicola, the person. I'm being invited down there as Joe Menicola, the councilman," he said. "I'm not going to let myself go unprotected."

Guttman said she, like others asked to appear, doesn't know what to expect.

"I'm going to go down there and go in and see what happens," she said.

Lupo, who went to state investigators twice to answer questions, said he will go without an attorney, largely because a subpoena grants him immunity.

"The truth is the truth and the truth will come out," he said. "I never requested a subpoena. I never requested an attorney. I never needed one."

-- Staff writer Matthew Waite can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is waite@sptimes.com.

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