I-Team: Savvy criminals haven't had to worry about state wiretaps in Clearwater or Sarasota areas

Trayvon Martin prosecutor uses lots of wires

TAMPA - The people entrusted to keep our streets safe from criminals have a lot of tools at their disposal.  But some Tampa Bay area prosecutors don't appear to be using all of them.

Florida state attorneys obtained 525 court orders to conduct electronic surveillance between 2006 and 2010, the latest period for which federal data are available.  But State Attorney Bernie McCabe, whose jurisdiction includes Pasco and Pinellas counties, and Earl Moreland, the state attorney for DeSoto, Manatee and Sarasota counties, were among those prosecutors who didn't get a single order in five years.

Electronic surveillance --- such as tapping a telephone or bugging a motor vehicle --- is one of the most effective ways to build court cases against sophisticated criminals.  Sometimes, there is no other means for investigators to penetrate a drug gang or corrupt political cabal.  Tailing suspects or cultivating informants alone doesn't always work.

Michael Seigel, director of the Criminal Justice Center at the University of Florida, said he wasn't surprised to hear that some state attorneys didn't make the federal wiretap report.

"They're incredibly busy and overworked," the former federal prosecutor said of Florida's state attorneys. "In general, we don't see a lot of complex cases being worked at the state level, except by the statewide prosecutor."

Statewide Prosecutor Nick Cox had just signed off on a wiretap application when the ABC Action News I-Team reached him. "Some prosecutors use it more than others," Cox said of electronic surveillance. "It's really, really time-intensive work. Our office is built for that."

Cox said his staffers concentrate on criminal conspiracies that operate across county lines. He estimated that 95 percent of state wires in Florida are approved for drug cases, most recently targeting so-called pill mills.

Seigel, the University of Florida law professor, knows firsthand the amount of time and resources that go into a successful criminal prosecution using court-approved interception of oral or wire communications. Seigel worked with a Philadelphia organized crime strike force during the 1980s, when Mafia turf wars left the City of Brotherly Love's streets littered with bullet-ridden corpses.

After a tap is approved, Seigel said FBI agents or other investigators usually have to monitor a wire around the clock to ensure only those conversations pertinent to criminal activity are recorded and preserved for trial. That is typically a condition of a judge approving such an intrusive investigative technique.

The offices of McCabe and Moreland didn't respond to I-Team requests for comment.

Not all Florida state attorneys seem to be unwilling to devote resources to wiretap investigations.

The state attorney's office for the Jacksonville area obtained 132 intercept orders during the 2006-2010 period. By far, that was the most of any state attorney in Florida.

The state attorney's office for Clay, Duval and Nassau counties, now headed by Angela Corey, sought 25 percent of all orders signed by judges statewide. Corey, first elected in 2008, has charged George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin as a special prosecutor in Seminole County.

Back in the Bay area, Mark Ober, state attorney for Hillsborough County, obtained 35 tap orders, sixth most in Florida. Jerry Hill, state attorney for Hardee, Highlands and Polk counties, secured two tap orders.

Seigel, who helped run the U.S. attorney's office in Tampa during the 1990s, said it is unfortunate that more state prosecutors don't take advantage of taps.

State tap applications are usually easier to get cleared through the law enforcement bureaucracy, Seigel said. With the U.S. Department of Justice, Seigel said, prosecutors and FBI agents must gain the approval of officials in Washington, D.C., before they can submit an intercept application to a federal judge, he said.

Do you have information about government waste, fraud or abuse? A tip about business misconduct that needs to be investigated? Email us at

iteam@abcactionnews.com .

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