The officer is the third to plead guilty in an investigation of civil rights violations, fraud and obstruction of justice. He agreed to assist prosecutors.
By GRAHAM BRINK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 12, 2002
TAMPA -- Wiping away tears, Armand Cotnoir abruptly ended his 3-day-old corruption trial Thursday by admitting to a judge that he broke the law many times as a Plant City police officer.
The fallout of his plea reverberated in the federal courtroom downtown, where Cotnoir's pregnant wife sat clutching a tissue, as well as 20 miles away in sleepy Plant City, where the Police Department was already reeling from allegations of widespread corruption.
He becomes the third Plant City officer to plead guilty in the inquiry, and yet another tool for the prosecutor to use to go after any other potential targets. With his plea, which ended his five-year police career and likely means a lengthy prison sentence, he also agreed to cooperate with the ongoing federal investigation, which could mean testifying against fellow officers.
As of now, no one else has been charged. But after the testimony heard this week, some observers see it as just a matter of time.
"This is the latest step in a long journey," said Danny Castillo, attorney for another cooperating witness. "The evidence is too much to overcome."
Ron Cacciatore, attorney for police Chief Bill McDaniel, said his client and Mayor Michael Sparkman were shocked that Cotnoir pleaded guilty. Cotnoir insisted all along that he had done nothing wrong, and the city supported him both emotionally and by paying his legal fees, Cacciatore said.
"His pleading guilty has cast a pall over the department," Cacciatore said. "He said he was absolutely innocent."
Cotnoir's attorney, Arthur Eggers, told reporters outside the courthouse that the decision to plead guilty came after "our planned defense was gutted." He would not elaborate.
Cotnoir, 27, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to deprive civil rights, deprivation of civil rights, obstruction of justice and five counts of mail fraud. While he faces a long term in federal prison, he will likely receive much less time if he cooperates fully with the investigators.
Cotnoir remains free pending his sentencing.
The inquiry began in 1999 when Plant City Officer Gregory Laughlin told a state agent that officers in the department's Special Investigations Unit were stealing pornographic videotapes from suspects' homes, faking search warrants and lying to judges. And many of the supervisors in the office condoned or participated in the activity, said Laughlin, who is now a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service.
As the investigation progressed, Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents set up a sting operation in 2000 in which they observed Officers Cotnoir, Shawn Corgan and Robert David Dixon illegally entering a motel room and stealing a videotape, the prosecutor said.
Corgan lied to the grand jury and later pleaded guilty to a perjury charge. He received six months house arrest and agreed to cooperate with the investigation. The agents approached Cotnoir, who agreed to remain on the job and try to gather information for the investigation.
But prosecutor Jeffrey Del Fuoco, saying Cotnoir had not been completely honest, dropped him as a cooperating witness. The charges followed in December.
Like Corgan, Officer Dixon entered into a plea agreement. His two days of testimony at Cotnoir's trial painted a grim picture of a department tainted by widespread corruption. He named names, including Officers Cotnoir, Richmond Porter, Darrell Wilson, Jerry Stwan and John Borders, Chief McDaniel, and City Manager Phil Waldron.
They all condoned or participated in the illegal activity, Dixon said.
"If your sergeant, captain, city manager and your chief know what's going on," Dixon told the jurors, "who's going to get you in trouble?"
Corgan, who was scheduled to testify Thursday until Cotnoir pleaded guilty, was expected to confirm much of what Dixon said.
But attorney Cacciatore said Chief McDaniel brought the department "out of the dark ages" when he took over in 1996.
"He is an honest man and an innocent man," Cacciatore said.
U.S. District Judge Richard Lazzara warned Cotnoir that unless he was completely honest with Del Fuoco and the investigators, it could void the plea agreement. Lazzara also acknowledged that pleading guilty and cooperating with investigators could not have been an easy decision.
U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Steve Cole said, "It took a good deal of courage for Mr. Cotnoir to admit his guilt and agree to cooperate."
Del Fuoco, the prosecutor, did not want to comment. The conviction could be seen as a kind of vindication for the veteran prosecutor. Plant City officials had harshly criticized him as overzealous and out of control.
The evidence Del Fuoco presented to the jury was "devastating," said attorney Castillo, who helped Dixon negotiate his plea deal. And he only got to put on half his case.
"Imagine how bad it could have been for the department if the trial had continued," Castillo said.
Now, Del Fuoco has Cotnoir, Dixon and Corgan to help build cases, Castillo said.
"Where are all the complaints about Del Fuoco now?" Castillo said. "People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."
-- Graham Brink can be reached at 226-3365 or email@example.com.