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FDLE ends look at harsh letters

Threatening letters from a former legislative aide will not lead to a full inquiry by the FDLE, officials say.

By JOSH ZIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 24, 1999


CRYSTAL RIVER -- After a brief review, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has decided not to press an investigation of former legislative aide Frank Peterson for possible criminal wrongdoing in relation to angry letters to two state-appointed officials.

The agency has conducted a cursory review of the details of the case, FDLE officials said, but did not interview Peterson. Peterson, once the top assistant to state Rep. Nancy Argenziano (R-Crystal River), got into hot water this summer after sending a threatening, profanity-filled note to new Southwest Florida Water Management District governing board member Monroe "Al" Coogler. House Speaker John Thrasher (R-Orange Park) fired Peterson when he refused to resign.

The day of his firing, Peterson sent another hostile letter to Thrasher that accused the speaker of being a "lackey" for Swiftmud. Concerned, Thrasher's office immediately sent that letter to FDLE, which already had a copy of the Coogler correspondence.

The review was completed in recent days, said Special Agent Supervisor Ray Velboom, who would not specifically explain why agents did not interview the letters' author.

"We didn't interview anyone," he said. "We had one of our workplace violence people (in Tampa) look at it. We found nothing that would indicate any criminal misconduct.

"I don't want to go into techniques," Velboom said. "We'd just made the decision . . . we'd gone far enough with it."

Velboom said his office, which covers Pasco, Hernando, Sumter and Citrus counties, often receives requests for reviews that don't turn into investigations. All the Tallahassee office sent down was a small file consisting primarily of newspaper articles and the letters, he said.

With only three to four investigators at his disposal, he must pick and choose carefully, FDLE Tampa office spokesman Rick Morera said.

Neither Peterson nor Argenziano could be reached for comment. Argenziano, who hired Peterson after her 1996 election, strongly defended Peterson and his use of language during the controversy.

Coogler, who publicized Peterson's letter, which eventually led to the firing, said, "I don't apologize for anything I did."

Peterson is well-known for his poison pen, writing letters for Argenziano that could bitterly attack her critics, including constituents, and people who simply stated opinions she disagreed with. A frequent target was Swiftmud.

Peterson blames the district for not approving his proposed housing development along the banks of the Withlacoochee River in Dunnellon. The letter to Coogler said, "Violence as a means to effect justice is not only invited, it is justified."

One factor separating this letter from the others is that it was written on Peterson's own stationery and on his own time. Argenziano never reviewed it and, consequently, claimed he was exercising his right to free speech.

Incoming House Speaker Tom Feeney (R-Oviedo), who will take over Thrasher's position next November, said he still agreed with Thrasher's decision to fire Peterson. Thrasher's office did not answer calls for comment.

"It's just nice to have the matter behind us and . . . I think that's what all of us want," said Feeney, who recently came to Citrus County in a show of public support for Argenziano. "The speaker has an obligation to keep decorum in the House."

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