The judge says evidence Armand Cotnoir talked with a witness isn't enough to make him await trial in jail.
By GRAHAM BRINK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 22, 2002
TAMPA -- Suspended Plant City police Officer Armand Cotnoir will remain free on bail until his trial next month.
U.S. District Judge Richard Lazzara ruled that the evidence did not rise to the level needed to revoke Cotnoir's bail on allegations that he tampered with a witness. But the judge said what he heard during Friday's 90-minute hearing raised a lot of suspicion.
The judge said it would be best if Cotnoir had no contact with the witness and that he use "a little more common sense."
"A lot of what I heard was troubling in nature," Lazzara said in court.
Investigators are alleging that a handful of officers with the police department's Special Investigations Unit stole property, conducted illegal searches, falsified records and lied to judges in a number of cases during a four-year period starting in 1997.
Two former officers have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the investigation. Cotnoir originally cooperated, but prosecutors said he was not totally honest with them and dropped him as a witness.
Cotnoir was subsequently charged with conspiracy and mail fraud, among other charges. He remains free on $25,000 bail.
In the latest salvo in the controversial investigation, federal prosecutor Jeffrey Del Fuoco filed a motion Thursday alleging that Cotnoir conspired with other employees of the Plant City Police Department to "muzzle" an unnamed government witness.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent Scott Peterka testified at Friday's hearing that an investigation found that Cotnoir had called the witness on a department cell phone used by another subject of the investigation, who has not been charged.
Peterka said the witness told him that Cotnoir said not to talk to the investigators and also offered an hour of free legal consultation. While Peterka was interviewing the witness, a lawyer called the witness to offer his advice, Peterka said. The witness declined the offer, Peterka said.
Cotnoir's attorney, Arthur Eggers, argued that the witness' testimony would be favorable to Cotnoir, so there was no reason to try to shut him up. Lazzara said he wasn't sure if that was really the case, but in the end decided there was not probable cause to revoke Cotnoir's bail.
Lazzara did not elaborate on exactly what troubled him about the testimony during the hearing. Some of the highlights included:
FDLE investigators had the witness wear a recording device to capture a conversation with a Plant City police officer, only to find out that the federal Drug Enforcement Agency was having the officer wear a wire to capture the same conversation with the witness.
It was unclear from the testimony and court documents exactly what kind of evidence the DEA was trying to gather. Peterka said in court that officials with the two agencies subsequently had a meeting. There, a DEA supervisor who had worked with some of the Plant City officers under investigation was "quite loud" in vocalizing his dislike of the corruption investigation, Peterka said.
Peterka testified that cell phone records showed that an unnamed lieutenant and a captain, both subjects of the investigation, had tried to contact the witness as well.
Peterka testified that an informant told investigators that Cotnoir and a co-conspirator had destroyed files pertinent to the investigation but left alone files that were favorable to the officers' cases. Peterka said the investigators were also told that Cotnoir and another man had placed black garbage bags full of what looked like paper into a large trash bin at the station.
Cotnoir is suspended from patrol but continues to work in an administrative role. His trial is scheduled to begin July 8 and last about eight days.