As Sweetwater Turns

There was nepotism on the police force and a councilman got busted for hawking fake IDs. But a slew of investigators haven't even begun to sort out the perpetual brouhaha that masquerades as city government.

Committing an act of battery upon a police officer by tossing the officer's paycheck on the ground and kicking his buttocks as he bent over to pick it up.

Verbally abusing or assaulting subordinates, including telling an officer "to commit suicide."

Using departmental resources to conduct a personal investigation. (Suspecting that a Sweetwater police official had told Toledo's wife that Toledo was having an extramarital affair, the assistant chief allegedly compelled several police officers to submit to polygraph examinations in violation of their civil rights. The officers were allegedly threatened with termination should they refuse to undergo the examinations.)

Compelling police officers to participate in political campaigns against their will, potentially a violation of federal law.

Attempting to misuse proceeds seized by the police department as a result of drug-related arrests. (Aguirre did not mention specific misappropriations.)

Demonstrating favoritism in handing out promotions and assignments.
Leaving the City of Sweetwater on personal business while supposedly on duty, and utilizing police personnel and equipment to run personal errands.

Leaving a reserve police officer in a supervisory position instead of an on-duty, full-time acting lieutenant.

Law enforcement and Sweetwater Police Department sources also believe investigators may be looking at allegations that Ray Toledo authorized equipment purchases for his own use.

"All this is total nonsense," asserts Terry McWilliams, Toledo's attorney. "Political nonsense. There's no evidence that I've seen to support any of this." McWilliams says he has read a set of statements that were taken from police officers and other witnesses as part of the internal affairs investigation. "I haven't read anything that supports the allegations," McWilliams declares. "They come from disgruntled police officers who are motivated by politicians." McWilliams declined to name those politicians.

Knowledgeable sources also say investigators are examining an array of possible criminal violations among city administrators and council members (including alleged breaches of Florida's Sunshine Law), as well as the mayor's publicly aired allegation that Gloria Bango has been intimidating department heads by threatening them with termination, a charge Bango denies.

Of course both factions manning the political front lines are equally certain that their opponents are the focus of all this attention. "I think the mayor's been nailed and she's cutting a deal," Mitro said a few days before he was arrested.

"Sweetwater has always been convoluted because we've got too many Latins," Bango laughs. "But it's never been this way."

Actually, it has been this way. Sweetwater boasts a rich tradition of official ignominy. Twice, in 1980 and 1981, several Sweetwater police officers were charged with beating up townspeople while on-duty. (The charges were dropped on both occasions.) Manuel Pardo, who was convicted of murdering nine people in 1986, had been fired from the Sweetwater police force only a year before the murders occurred. The city had hired him shortly after he resigned from the Florida Highway Patrol, where an internal investigation revealed that he falsified 100 traffic warning and correction notices.

Four years ago six Sweetwater city officials, including then-mayor Irain Gonzalez and three members of the city council, were suspended by then-governor Bob Martinez in a zoning scandal. Four of the officials were indicted on charges of trying to extort $11,000 from a Sweetwater businessman in exchange for a zoning variance for his shopping plaza. The mayor and two of the council members were sentenced to prison time. Framed photographs of past mayors and council members adorn the walls of the Sweetwater City Hall council chambers; the likenesses of the six suspended city officials, conspicuously, are absent.

Seeking a place to retire, the Russian circus midgets came upon the area now known as Sweetwater, and along with developer Clyde Anderson and about a dozen other pioneers, they voted to incorporate. It was a mixed blessing: On one hand, the city was guaranteed a unique and memorable early history; on the other, midgets were traditionally the butt of circus jokes.

Of course it's not fair to blame Sweetwater's modern-day troubles on a group of vertically challenged performers. But for whatever reason, the city has acquired a unique history bursting with buffoonery -- at least those parts of Sweetwater history that persist in the popular lore. At the vague juncture of fact and legend are plenty of colorful anecdotes about the city, including the one about the entire volunteer fire department resigning because city officials took the fire engine to a blaze without them. Another story has it that one of the city's first policemen quit to become a robber, then abandoned that pursuit to become a city councilman, and then, after being kicked off the council for socking the fire chief, became a burglar again. In 1984 then-mayor Armando Penedo and then-councilman Irain Gonzalez reportedly got into a fistfight in front of city hall; Gonzalez was allegedly angry that the building lights weren't on. And it is a well-known fact that former police chief Charles Toledo has an arrest record for poaching.

But behind the veil of oddities is a troubled town that always seems to thwart its own best efforts to garner respect. And each political crisis or embarrassment begs the question: What will save Sweetwater from itself?

Not surprisingly, today's political players have a ready answer.
"The problems are all because of her," spits Ronald Mitro, referring to Mayor Matilde Aguirre. "We've been trying since 1991 to get this woman. She's, like, possessed by the devil. She does stuff and gets away with it."

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