By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
The cover-up was the crime in Plantation last week.
Police Chief Larry Massey blatantly broke state open-record statutes, commonly called the Sunshine Law, which is essential in keeping an eye on what our public officials are doing. And Plantation City Attorney Donald Lunny Jr.. sat by and apparently approved.
The trashing of the statutes came after I asked to see the internal affairs file on a steroids investigation involving two Plantation police officers. That request led to epic stonewalling by the chief, who tried to charge New Times unlawful fees, illegally redacted information from a document, and ultimately refused to release any more public information at all.
The more I learned about the case, the more I understood why Massey was in full obstruction mode: He had played a potentially controversial role in the steroids investigation before trying to hide it from public view.
Juicing at local cop shops is a raging issue in South Florida right now, with a recent a new steroids scandal at the Broward County Sheriffs Office and (apparently unrelated) news of police beatings, one involving a videotape showing Fort Lauderdale police rushing a man and breaking his nose in an elevator.
BSO had another steroids scandal in 2005, after which eight deputies were cleared of wrongdoing because they had prescriptions. Basically, that agency is allowing deputies to juice so long as they can find a willing doctor to write a script for them.
Imagine if Major League Baseball allowed such shenanigans. Commissioner Bud Selig would get laughed out of his office.
When I got wind of the Plantation steroids case, I was told it involved two now-former police officers, one of whom has been identified as Joseph Alu, who is a cop with a rich biography.
Alu was hailed as a hero in 1995 when he was badly burned in a house explosion that critically burned another officer, Jim O'Hara, and killed two teenaged sisters and their mother's estranged boyfriend.
In late 2007, the large, muscular, and heavily tattooed Alu and another officer were accused of using steroids. Both tested positive, prompting an internal affairs investigation. Attorney Scott Rothstein , whose large downtown Fort Lauderdale firm represents the Fraternal Order of Police, defended both officers during the investigation.
Beyond that, the case gets very foggy thanks to Massey's obfuscation. When I asked to view the investigative file on March 9, I was met with a week of silence, even though the law demands that such requests be answered promptly and fulfilled in a reasonable amount of time.
Finally, on March 16, Sgt. Richard Vincent, who works in internal affairs, emailed the following:
"In regards to your request for inspection of the 'steroids file,' due to the complexity and volume of the file which includes exempted personal medical information, it would have to be reviewed and redacted by our City Attorney. If it is your desire to view the file, please contact our Records Custodian, Donna Jones-Wehbe, for information on the cost of reproduction and attorney fees."
It was clear the department was going to make this as painful as possible. A dead giveaway was the reference to "attorney fees." Governmental bodies are legally allowed to charge only specified fees under Florida's Sunshine Law, and attorney bills are not one of them. To make sure, I called one of the state's foremost experts on the law, Pat Gleason, an attorney who works in Gov. Charlie Crist's administration.
"They do not have the authority to do that," she assured me.
I didn't have time for a long, drawn-out fight, though, so I quickly narrowed the request to the investigative summary, a simple report on the findings. I honestly expected to get that report within a few hours. Not quite. Chief Massey introduced himself to me in an email.
"Let me just take a minute to involve myself in this situation, since in my opinion, this case would take longer than the customary 15 minutes...," he wrote. "This case is a bit of an anomaly that involves an extensive administrative investigation conducted over a lengthy period of time in which the lines of distinction blur between medically protected/exempt information and that which is open for public inspection. In order to protect the City of Plantation from legal exposure, I feel strongly that..."
It went on and on. The upshot was that now the chief was personally involved, and it was obvious that he was intent on making this as difficult as possible, including charging fees for what he called "the special services of an attorney."
"Why would this simple legal review not fall under the city attorney's normal job duties?" I wrote Massey back. "Frankly this seems a gratuitous attempt to place unnecessary burdens on someone trying to obtain public records. I hope the department doesn't hit all its citizens (and not just the ones who happen to be journalists) with such superfluous fees."
I should have said "illegal fees." Massey didn't email me back until the next morning, Tuesday. "All I am asking you to do is take financial responsibility for the work involved in completing the request," he wrote.
I thought my tax dollars would take care of that, especially since I had already reduced my request down to one stinking report. Now I was angry.