Police group defends money for Punta Gorda chief’s defense

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Former Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis.

PUNTA GORDA, Fla.Ā The Southwest Florida Police Chiefs Association fired back Tuesday after a letter from State Attorney Stephen Russell said it funneled taxpayer money toward the legal defense of Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis.

Members of taxpayer-funded law enforcement agencies pay dues to the association, but a “major portion” of the association’s money comes from sources other than dues, the association said. The association also indicated dues don’t necessarily come from agencies but from individual members instead.

It’s unclear whether the association delineates money raised through taxpayer-funded sources from money that comes from private sources.

Lewis was charged in February with second-degree misdemeanor culpable negligence after the fatal shooting of retired librarian Mary Knowlton in an August 2016 citizens police academy. He was placed on paid administrative leave one day after the charge came down.

Only three regular members of the association were present for the vote on funding for his defense, according to Russell’s letter, which he sent to inform the organization that he and other association members from the 20th Judicial Circuit were pulling out.

But seven regular members and a total of 19 voting members were there that day, the association said.

Lewis abstained from the vote, as well as all motions and discussion on the matter, according to the association and Stephen Romine, Lewis’ attorney.

The vote was unanimous, with no discussion or objection from anyone present, including members of the state attorneyā€™s office, the association said.

Russell clarified in a statement Wednesday that while he supports the mission of the association, he views continued affiliation with it as a conflict of interest.

A member of the state attorney’s office also abstained from the vote, according to the association.

Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Prummell, a member of the association, wasn’t at the meeting when the vote took place but said Wednesday he opposes funding for Lewis’ defense and supports Russell’s decision to withdraw.

Lewis’ case is separate from that of Lee Coel, who pulled the trigger in the shooting. Coel was charged with first-degree felony manslaughter and fired from his job as a Punta Gorda police officer. Heā€™s appealing his termination.

 

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