Former Aide to Florida's Lieutenant Governor Won't Get Arson Probe

Florida fire marshal declined to investigate a trash can blaze in the office of a former aide to Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll

By Bill Kaczor
|  Monday, Jul 16, 2012  |  Updated 7:13 PM EDT
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An ongoing criminal case against a former top aide to Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll is transforming into a swirl of allegations about improper relationships, widespread illegal taping and other incidents inside Carroll's office. NBC 6 spoke with Steve Webster, the attorney for Carletha Cole, who is making some of the allegations.

An ongoing criminal case against a former top aide to Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll is transforming into a swirl of allegations about improper relationships, widespread illegal taping and other incidents inside Carroll's office. NBC 6 spoke with Steve Webster, the attorney for Carletha Cole, who is making some of the allegations.

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Florida's fire marshal on Monday declined to investigate a trash can blaze last year in the office of a former aide who has made a series of misconduct allegations against Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll.

Steven Andrews, a lawyer for fired staffer Carletha Cole, sought an investigation of what they say was an act of arson although another state agency decided it was an accident. Andrews said he now plans to ask the U.S. attorney's office to investigate.

Carroll, meanwhile, continued to deny Cole's allegations, including a claim that she saw the lieutenant governor in a "compromising position" with another aide, Beatriz Ramos, in Carroll's Capitol office.

In an interview with 10 News in the Tampa Bay area, Carroll says that black women who look like her "don't engage in relationships like that."

Cole, who was arrested last October on charges of illegally taping a conversation with the Republican lieutenant governor's chief of staff, contends Ramos set her trash can on fire after they had an argument.

In a letter, Andrews alleged a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigator destroyed the evidence — an extinguished cigar and burned match — upon concluding the fire was an accident before he interviewed any witnesses. The FDLE acknowledges the evidence was destroyed but contends it was only after Ramos was questioned.

Division of Fire Marshal Director Julius Halas declined Andrews' request in a letter saying it was not necessary because FDLE already investigated the trash can fire, which was quickly put out by another staffer.

"We are disappointed that the fire marshal spent less than a day to consider reopening the investigation," Andrews said in an email. "There is substantial evidence that it has not been developed."

In his request Andrews also cited a letter allegedly signed by Carroll that recommends FDLE investigator John Hamilton for a job with the Division of Alcoholic Beverages a day after he closed the investigation.

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Cole, who was fired from her job as a senior program analyst last September about a month before she was arrested, also contends Ramos, a special assistant to the lieutenant governor, was living at Carroll's home. Cole claims that at one point she was ordered to find adjoining hotel rooms for Carroll and Ramos when they traveled.

The allegations came in court papers Cole's lawyers filed in response to attempts by prosecutors to seal evidence in the taping case.

Carroll, a former Navy officer and a married mother of three, last week told The Associated Press the allegations are "totally false and absurd" and an effort by Cole to get her criminal charges dropped.

"Unfortunately, as an elected official character deformation that is totally fabricated can occur like this and there is not much I can do," Carroll responded to a couple who sent her an email expressing their support.

Gov. Rick Scott's office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger denied Hamilton destroyed the evidence before speaking with Ramos, who had said she accidentally set the trash can on fire. Ramos told him someone had given her the cigar at a St. Patrick's Day party near the Capitol on March 17, 2011, and that she took a couple puffs before wrapping it in a paper towel. She said she later put it in Cole's trash can.

"With the responsible party stepping forward and absent any other evidence or suspicious circumstances we found her statement to be credible and determined this to be an accident," Plessinger said. "However, if there is a witness with additional information, we encourage them to come forward."

Andrews' letter also asked that Carroll and Ramos be requested to voluntarily take polygraph examinations administered by the FBI. It suggested as well that Scott instruct state employees not to exercise their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and that he promise no retaliation be taken for speaking freely to investigators.

Another request was that Hamilton be asked whether he had advised his supervisor that he obtained the letter of recommendation from Carroll after closing the case.

Cole is accused of giving the recording to a reporter for the Florida Times-Union of Jacksonville. It is a crime in Florida to record a conversation without the knowledge of those being recorded although there's a legal question about recordings made in public buildings. The maximum penalty is five years in prison.

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