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Fired trooper who 'cut breaks' for lawmakers fights to regain job

Fired Florida state trooper Charles Swindle says he was using "discretion." His ex-bosses say his trumped-up citations against two legislators were acts of misconduct that cost him his job.

Swindle got his day in court Wednesday at a hearing before the Public Employees Relations Commission that attracted more news media representatives than actual participants. That in all likelihood was more a reflection of the post-session news doldrums in Tallahassee than the significance of the case itself.

"This is about Mr. Swindle issuing false citations," said Sandra Coulter, an attorney for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, in her opening statement in a cramped hearing room. "He's a law enforcement officer who has falsified formal documents."

Swindle's actions in the breakdown lane of I-10 in Madison last Nov. 19 cost him his job. In the space of a half hour, he stopped two motorists -- both of them legislators headed to Tallahassee to be sworn in to office. Both times, Swindle said the lawmakers were racing at 87 miles per hour in a 70 mph zone (what are the odds?) In both cases, he decided not to write speeding tickets; instead, he cited Reps. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, and Mike Clelland, D-Lake Mary, for not having proof of car insurance, though both men did have the proof. Clelland also was cited for not displaying his registration.

Hearing officer Gregg Morton watched as the state played in-cruiser video and audio of Swindle's traffic stops. "There's no way I was going 87," McBurney could be heard telling the trooper, who told the lawmaker he was "cutting you a break" with a warning for speeding and a $10 fine for no proof of car insurance, which McBurney paid, before writing a scathing letter to the FHP that criticized Swindle's behavior, setting in motion his March firing.

Swindle's attorney, Sidney Matthew, argued that a long-standing unwritten policy at the Florida Highway Patrol discourages troopers from ticketing legislators, but Coulter countered: "I haven't seen a copy of that policy." Swindle, testifying under oath, said his superiors at the FHP reinforced the policy, but when pressed, the only person he cited who gave him such advice was a former trooper, Bill Grubbs. "Cut them breaks when you can," Swindle recalled Grubbs telling him.

Neither McBurney nor Clelland was called as a witness, as neither side in the case demanded either man's testimony. Swindle is seeking reinstatement to the Florida Highway Patrol with back pay. Matthew endured a series of procedural setbacks, as the hearing officer refused to allow Leon County Sheriff Larry Campbell to be called as a witness.

Campbell said he was ready to testify under oath that he was stopped several times by troopers, only to be sent on his way without a fine. But in speaking with reporters outside the hearing room, Campbell said he had never heard of a trooper concocting a no-proof-of-insurance violation. "I don't think that's the right thing to do," Campbell said.

In a bizarre moment, state Rep. Clovis Watson Jr., D-Gainesville -- one of several lawmakers ticketed by troopers in the past year -- showed up to testify, only to be told that he was excused and that his testimony wasn't necessary. Lawyers for the House and Senate successfully quashed Matthew's subpoenas seeking testimony from nine other ticketed lawmakers.

-- Steve Bousquet