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    Playing hide and seek with the feds

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    By HOWARD TROXLER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 29, 2000


    Oops. This must be why they always say, "Don't make a federal case out of it."

    On Wednesday, a federal judge in Tampa ruled against the St. Petersburg Times and its unlikely bedfellow, the Police Benevolent Association, in a lawsuit against the city of St. Petersburg.

    The judge is a smart guy, so who am I to squawk? Nobody ever won a fight with an umpire. But I certainly can grumble quietly into my glass, and worry about whether this creates a scary loophole for the future. Grumble.

    The lawsuit centered around Goliath Davis, the police chief of St. Petersburg, and one of his underlings, named Donnie Williams. Williams had been accused, by a confidential informer, of engaging in what looked like drug deals in a bar in early 1998.

    Was this a ridiculous accusation against a reputable officer? I sure hope so. After all, cops get accused of things by street-level guys all the time. But did the police investigate? How vigorously? What, exactly, did they find or not find?

    Reasonable questions.

    Williams, a sergeant, got promoted to lieutenant. An officer named Ray Craig went public with the allegation that the police, under the chief's orders, had soft-pedaled their investigation of Williams. Craig was fired for violating confidentiality rules.

    The police union sided with Craig and took up his appeal. His accusations of easy treatment for Williams were not proven. But meanwhile, the newspaper wanted to know about Williams, too. Both parties began demanding records under the state Public Records Act.

    The city had a dilemma. Under state law, the records could be kept secret if they were part of an "ongoing criminal investigation." But if the city made that claim, it also was admitting it had promoted a guy under investigation. The city and the police chief were not exactly crazy about being forced to make such a declaration.

    In the end, the city found an interesting middle ground. There was no active investigation of Williams, nosiree. But this was one piece of a much bigger operation, a partnership between federal and local law enforcement. Therefore, any records about Williams were still part of a bigger "ongoing investigation," and not public.

    The case was headed to trial in state court, where the argument would continue over whether the Williams records were part of an "ongoing" investigation. Just before trial, however, the feds, represented by the U.S. Attorney's Office, joined the case as a defendant.

    Oooh, those wascally feds! After joining the case, they next announced they were moving it to federal court. The federal governmment can do this when a federal law pre-empts a state law.

    In this case, the feds contended, we were talking about records of a federal investigation. U.S. District Judge Richard A. Lazzara agreed. Even though the records were made by St. Petersburg police officers, and stored in city facilities, the overall federal-local investigation made them part of federal records.

    Ruling: For the defendants.

    There certainly is a good reason for keeping legitimate police investigations secret. It also would be wrong to blow legitimate federal-local investigations.

    However, this ruling means that the people of St. Petersburg are not entitled to know how their own Police Department handled allegations against an active lieutenant in the force. We have no clue. We are expected to trust the government blindly, indefinitely.

    In the longer run, this ruling gives local governments a tempting route when they really, desperately want to avoid the state public records law: find an excuse for getting the feds involved.

    The city and police say, trust us, that will not happen. The judge said repeatedly, it was not his intent to create such a loophole. "I do not make precedent . . . it's as simple as that," the judge insisted. Maybe so. But he did pull the ladder right up to the cookie jar and leave it there.

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