City Of Tallahassee spent $392,277 on P.I.s

City spent $392,277 on P.I.s

One firm is off the case; 1,300 claims filed against city in 2011

12:55 AM, Mar. 14, 2012 | By Jeff Burlew Senior government editor
The city of Tallahassee spent nearly $400,000 on private investigators in 2011, including $18,000 on a firm recently hired to investigate City Hall critic Erwin Jackson.

Documents obtained by the Tallahassee Democrat show the city spent $392,277 with a dozen different private-investigation firms over the last fiscal year. City Attorney Jim English said more than 1,300 legal claims were filed against the city over the same period and that investigators were hired in some of the cases to help the city defend itself.

However, English said the city will no longer be working with Specialized Investigations Group, the P.I. firm hired after Jackson sued the city in small-claims court over a utility-easement dispute involving a Jackson-owned equipment shed the city has called illegal.

One of the partners in Specialized Investigations Group, former Tallahassee Police Department officer Scott Darnell, was arrested over the summer on charges of aggravated fleeing of an officer, a felony, and leaving the scene of a crash and DUI with property damage, both misdemeanors, according to court records. Darnell, who lost his state-issued P.I. license last year, has a history of crashes and run-ins with law enforcement, according to court records.

“We won’t hire this firm because of what we found out about Mr. Darnell,” English said. “It’s not conduct that I would be proud of.”

English said he didn’t know about Darnell’s history until media outlets began reporting on it. He said the city worked with Donna Brown, another partner in the SIG firm and a former TPD officer. English said Brown is a reputable former officer and investigator.

City officials say they expect to spend as much as $1,000 on investigators alone to defend against Jackson’s $4,720 court claim.

And while it’s unclear what role if any Darnell played in the Jackson investigation, the hiring of his firm prompted Jackson to lambast the city and call for English’s firing. Jackson plans to speak out during tonight’s City Commission meeting.

“We’re going to be talking about whether the citizens of this community want their government to spy on citizens,” Jackson said.

Commissioner Gil Ziffer said he wants to take part in a full and public discussion of the matter.

“Are we doing this with other people? I would like to know,” Ziffer said, adding he wants a report on how and when private investigators are used. “Rather than it being resolved behind the scenes, (the commission) should talk about it. And Dr. Jackson should have the opportunity to talk about it also.”

The city paid between a couple thousand dollars to as much as six figures to the P.I. firms, according to city records. Their services included photographing and documenting accident scenes, interviewing witnesses, searching court and public records, surveillance and searching insurance-claim histories, English said.

Jackson says the city hired Specialized Investigations Group for only one reason — because he’s been a persistent thorn in the side of City Hall and critic of Mayor John Marks. English, however, says the city was only trying to gather evidence in the lawsuit Jackson filed in December.

“We don’t want to be the taxpayers’ ATM and spit out money for a bogus claim,” English said.

Fight over easement

Earlier this month, the city acknowledged it hired an investigator after Brown was spotted snooping around one of Jackson’s properties. Jackson owns numerous rental homes and apartments, including some along Airport Drive.

Last year, the city locked Jackson out from a mowed and gated utility easement he used to access the lawn-equipment shed behind a house on Airport Drive. At the time, the city believed it owned the easement, but some months later, it unlocked the gate for Jackson after learning the easement was actually privately owned, city officials have said.

Jackson billed the city $2,512 for his trouble in an email dated June 26. City Manager Anita Favors Thompson wrote back June 28 to apologize, saying, “I believe we should be responsible for our part in this mistake.” However, city officials say Jackson never sent the city documentation of his expenses. The city sent Jackson a check for $75, prompting him to sue.

English says the city actually owes Jackson nothing because the shed is located in a residentially zoned area and Jackson has been using it for a commercial purpose, namely to store equipment used for his various properties.

English estimated the city spent between $500 and $1,000 on the investigation firm related to Jackson’s case.

An FHP chase

On July 15, 2011, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper spotted Darnell’s Toyota SUV pass and cut off a pick-up truck as the vehicles were merging onto Interstate 10 at North Monroe Street, according to court records.

The trooper began pursuing Darnell after the driver of the truck yelled through his window that the SUV had crashed into him. However, the trooper said Darnell sped east down I-10, swerving in and out of traffic and forcing other cars out of their lanes. Darnell exited I-10 at Thomasville Road, running a red light in the process, and headed north before crashing into another vehicle.

Records show Darnell suffered minor injuries and was taken to the hospital. Tests showed his blood-alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit, according to court records.

Assistant State Attorney David Marsey, in a Feb. 28 email to Darnell’s attorney, Don Pumphrey, offered to withhold adjudication on the felony charge if Darnell pleads guilty to the two misdemeanor charges. Under the plea offer, Darnell would serve as much as 60 days in jail, have his vehicle impounded and his driver’s license suspended.

Darnell, if he accepts the offer, also would have to continue to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and make restitution. If the case goes to trial, Marsey wrote he would seek adjudication of guilty on the felony charge and “a substantial period of incarceration.” Pumphrey could not be reached for comment.

Darnell resigns

Darnell, who worked for TPD from 1996 until his resignation in 2005, has a history of driving incidents.

In 2009, he was charged with DUI, but prosecutors later dropped the charge because they said police didn’t properly follow a roadblock operational plan.

In March 2005, he was suspended from TPD with pay after he crashed his personal vehicle into Lake Iamonia. He resigned during his suspension, and while TPD officials say he gave no reason, English said it was likely to avoid being fired.

In January 2005, Darnell totaled his police car on the way home and was verbally reprimanded for not wearing a seat belt. Investigators couldn’t determine what caused the crash, and Darnell couldn’t remember what happened.

In April 2003, Darnell was pulled over by the Florida Highway Patrol after being clocked going 88 mph in a 45-mph zone. The trooper noted Darnell had alcohol on his breath but showed no physical signs of being drunk. Darnell was charged with reckless driving, though that was later amended to a lesser infraction.

P.I. license declined

The state of Florida issued Darnell a private-investigator’s license on April 13, 2006, which expired Dec. 7, 2011, according to Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services records. He applied for a renewal, but it was declined Feb. 10 because of his pending criminal charges.

On March 5, Darnell asked for a formal hearing to contest the denial of his application. He also asked permission to continue working as an investigator until a hearing on his license is held. DACS did not oblige the request, and Darnell currently is not licensed as an investigator.

Special Investigations Group does have an active license as does Brown, according to state records.

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