At the federal corruption trial of a Plant City officer, the prosecutor declares the conspiracy is widespread.
By GRAHAM BRINK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 9, 2002
TAMPA -- As the trial opened Monday, federal prosecutor Jeffrey Del Fuoco promised the jury that lone defendant Armand Cotnoir isn't the only Plant City police officer guilty of corruption.
The conspiracy, Del Fuoco said, runs right to the top to Police Chief Bill McDaniel and includes other ranking officers. And Del Fuoco named names, pounding home his point in his Philadelphia accent.
"The management of the police department were in on it, knew about it and did nothing about it," Del Fuoco said.
As Cotnoir's trial on charges including conspiracy and obstruction of justice plays out over the next two weeks, more than just his guilt or innocence is on the line. The future of the entire three-year corruption investigation may also hang in the balance.
Reputations and careers could be affected. Plant City Mayor Michael Sparkman has backed Cotnoir, not only with moral support but with the city's pocketbook, paying the 27-year-old officer's legal bill.
A conviction could open the way for more arrests. Some officers could cut deals to avoid prison time.
An acquittal would only fuel the criticism of Del Fuoco, a long-time corruption prosecutor whom city officials have called out of control and bent on securing convictions no matter what the evidence suggests.
"I stand behind my police chief and my police department," Sparkman said Monday from his office at Sparky's Food Stores in Plant City. "All kinds of things have been said in the newspapers. Now we have a chance to defend ourselves."
Plant City, a town of 31,000 people about 20 miles east of Tampa, is best known for its annual strawberry festival, which attracted 900,000 visitors last year. Over the years, the town had experienced its share of police problems, especially under the previous chief, Troy Surrency, who survived several state investigations in 23 years in the job before retiring in 1996. But few of those problems created the intense scrutiny Plant City faces today.
The latest investigation began in the summer of 1999, when Plant City police Officer Gregory Laughlin contacted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and said he knew of fellow officers lying, stealing, misleading judges and illegally searching homes.
Laughlin, whose name was not revealed until Monday, told the FDLE that he had heard several officers in the department's Special Investigations Unit, including Cotnoir, joking about stealing items including pornographic videos from suspects' homes.
Laughlin, who was not part of the SIU, said he also knew that the men in that unit bragged about illegally searching homes and vehicles without proper warrants. He said that on one search, he witnessed an officer putting pornographic videos into several VCRs in the home so that when the suspects' 15-year-old daughter got home, she would see all the videos playing.
Laughlin, who testified Monday, said at first he thought of telling his supervisor or someone further up the chain of command. But Laughlin said he had overheard supervisors in the department, including Chief McDaniel, Capt. John Borders and Sgt. Darryl Wilson, joking about the stealing and illegal searches. Richmond Porter, another officer with the SIU, also was involved in the illegal activity, Laughlin said.
"I wanted to go to someone who was going to do something," said Laughlin, who joined the department in 1993 but left last year when he was hired as a special agent for the U.S. Secret Service.
Using Laughlin's information, prosecutor Del Fuoco and FDLE Agent Scott Peterka set up a sting operation. In April 2000, they rigged a room at the Days Inn in Plant City with surveillance equipment and then contacted the SIU to say the occupants were using drugs and making pornographic films.
Several members of the SIU showed up and eventually entered the room without a warrant, court documents said. Inside they found video equipment pointed at the bed. Officer Shawn C. Corgan took the pornographic videotape from the camera, according to documents.
Not knowing that the whole incident was caught on a surveillance tape, Corgan lied when he was called before the grand jury, saying another officer took the tape. Eventually, he admitted he took the tape and agreed to keep cooperating with Del Fuoco.
Corgan pleaded guilty to lying to the grand jury, agreed to testify against Cotnoir and was sentenced last year to six months of house arrest.
After Corgan's sentencing, several months passed before the next public break in the case. Some observers began to wonder whether Del Fuoco had run out of steam. Then in November 2001 came the plea agreement of another officer.
Robert David Dixon, a 10-year detective, had resigned in July 2000 amid allegations that he filed an affidavit with a forged signature, a charge unrelated to the federal probe.
When Dixon's plea agreement was announced, Laughlin's accusations had not yet become public. Only Corgan's perjury charge had been in the news.
Dixon's plea agreement exploded with accusations. It accused unnamed officers of threatening suspects, making dozens of illegal searches, faking affidavits and generally trampling on residents' civil rights.
They often joked about the growing amount of stolen "booty," Dixon told investigators. They also lied on police reports and during sworn testimony to help convict defendants, the agreement stated.
If the officers wanted to search a car but the driver refused to give them permission, they would often say they smelled burning marijuana, he alleged. The made-up suspicion would allow them to search without a warrant.
On at least one occasion, officers told a suspected drug dealer that they had a warrant to search his home, Dixon said. In fact, the officers had a warrant for a different home. The three defendants, Juan, Jose and Eric Contreras, had their drug and gun convictions vacated because of the misconduct.
And Dixon's allegations of criminal activity did not stop with the Police Department: At least one city official knew about the activity but did nothing to stop it, the agreement said.
At that point, the co-conspirators were all unnamed. Sparkman, the mayor, blasted Dixon's testimony as fabricated. McDaniel, the police chief, defended the department and criticized the federal investigation as "out of control."
"The behavior of one officer (Dixon) is not reflective of an entire agency," McDaniel said at the time.
A month after Dixon's plea agreement became public, Cotnoir was arrested. Investigators said he had participated in several illegal searches, including the sting operation set up at the Days Inn. Cotnoir and other officers used false warrants and stole property during the searches, court documents alleged.
Previously, Cotnoir had been cooperating with investigators. He remained at the department acting as their eyes and ears, Del Fuoco said. But Del Fuoco said Cotnoir had not been completely honest and dropped him as a cooperating witness. The charges followed.
Since then, decorum in the case has deteriorated. Each side has accused the other of legal shenanigans.
Del Fuoco tried unsuccessfully to get a judge to remove Cotnoir's attorney, Arthur Eggers, saying he had a conflict of interest because the mayor was paying his legal fees. So far, Sparkman and the city have paid more than $300,000 in legal fees for Cotnoir, McDaniel and Porter.
Del Fuoco accused the police chief and mayor of collaborating to hide criminal evidence against police officers targeted in the federal corruption probe. Sparkman was paying the legal fees for Cotnoir to keep him from talking to the government about crimes committed by McDaniel, Del Fuoco said. In exchange, McDaniel agreed to hide incriminating information about the mayor, Del Fuoco said.
Neither the mayor nor the chief has been charged with a crime.
On the other side, Cotnoir's lawyer tried to get Del Fuoco removed, blasting him for overzealous prosecution. Plant City Commissioner Randy Larson compared Del Fuoco's investigation to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
At a commission meeting last month, Sparkman praised Cotnoir for standing up to the investigation. He said in a prayer that Plant City was under attack and asked for God's help "against the odds."
Cotnoir, who is suspended from duty but working in an administrative role at the department, could testify later in the trial. Eggers said in his opening statement that Cotnoir was not to blame. Dixon, he said, was the real culprit who was trying to save his own skin by turning on his former colleagues.
Eggers said much of Del Fuoco's case was based on the testimony of known liars, Dixon and Corgan.
Dixon's lawyer, Danny Castillo, disagreed, saying when people know the facts aren't on their side they start name-calling.
"We'll just see who's standing when this is all finished," Castillo said. "Right now, my money is on the government."
-- The Associated Press and Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Graham Brink can be reached at 226-3365 or firstname.lastname@example.org.