She had moved south from New York with the hopes of establishing a quiet life in the quaint city of New Port Richey, located almost 40 miles northwest of Tampa. The healthcare professional bought some property and planned to open a nurse practitioner office near downtown.
But sustained harassment from the police department and code enforcement pushed the 33-year-old to the limits of what she could bear.
Last March, the cops broke into her home when she wasn’t there to inspect alleged code violations, using an illegal search warrant. Body camera video obtained by Creative Loafing Tampa Bay revealed them making jokes about Anne Frank, a prominent victim of the Holocaust.
Her home security camera system showed the police going through her personal belongings and code enforcement personnel looking through her garbage.
Wojciechowski, who is Jewish and an advocate for progressive causes, faced criminal charges for the alleged violations—an uncommon practice in the state. Usually, those types of violations are civil matters that are resolved via fines.
She was terrified, but didn’t back down. She started looking into the officers involved.
Public records told her that that code enforcement officer Charles Morgan regularly spied on her water use levels to see when she was and wasn’t home. He also ran her license plate through a police scanner 22 times from November of 2021 to May of 2022.
UnqualifiedWojciechowski dug up communications with city officials showing that Morgan had not yet completed his certification with the Florida Association of Code Enforcement at the time that he issued the charges against her, even though he had served in the role since 2017.
Morgan, who the city says is still a code inspector, had been terminated from his past two municipal jobs. In 2013, he was released from his job at the Pinellas County Clerk of Court while still in his probationary period. In between, he worked for the UPS Store and Shooters World, according to a job application obtained by CL.
In 2017, he was removed from his role as code enforcement inspector at the City of St. Petersburg for violating information privacy policies, documents show.
But before he was fired from that job, he was suspended for four days for lying to his superiors about doing an inspection on property when he hadn’t.
Morgan’s next stop was as a code enforcement officer for New Port Richey, a role he began in September of 2017.
CL reached Morgan on his cell, but he declined to answer any questions and then hung up.
Last September, Wojciechowski went to a city council meeting to talk about the harassment she was reckoning with from Morgan, other members of the code enforcement, and police. When she came back home, the word “whore” had been spray painted on the tire of a tractor that she had parked in her yard, which she was about to transport out of state to her new property to develop it before moving there.
She put her New Port Richey property up for sale and leased some property in another state, where she’s setting up a new life.
“I never thought for a day that I would be having two master's degrees in public health and be living in a camper,” she said. “You know, it's like the bottom of the barrel. I think I'm at the lowest point of my life.”
But after upending her life, the city suddenly dropped all of the charges against her rather than let her take it to court, leaving her distraught and confused.
Not aloneMichelle Wojciechowski is just one of several people who have left the city of New Port Richey due to continued harassment from police and code enforcement, which merged into the same department back in 2004, according to city officials.
Currently, at least five lawsuits are being waged by current and former residents of the area. Two are against New Port Richey Police Department (NPRPD) for false arrest and abuse while in custody. Three lawsuits are aimed at code enforcement and allege harassment of tenants, as well as business owners.
Across the country, it’s an uncommon practice for code enforcement and police to be in one department, but it’s not unheard of. In New Port Richey, a city with an estimated 16,966 residents as of the last reported census, code enforcement has led to large profits.
Financial reports from 2021 show that fines and property forfeitures totaled $2,231,800 in revenue for the city. The year before that, the city raked in just over $2 million, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Numbers from 2022 have not been released yet on the city’s website.
For more than four years, Jennifer Hebert and her husband Joseph felt the pressure from code enforcement and police as they operated their plant nursery Farmer Joe Plants. The business was on the side of U.S. Highway 19, often referred to by locals as the “gateway” to New Port Richey.
The prime location of U.S. 19 leading into New Port Richey has received heavy investment by city officials. In 2019, the city spent $1.7 million of Community Redevelopment Agency funds buying up property on U.S. 19 in order to “revitalize” what they referred to as a “troubled gateway to the city” near where the Heberts’ business operated.
After repeated visits by code enforcement, several false charges and threats of arrest if they didn’t sign off on citations, the Heberts were forced to abandon their business last year and move to the nearby city of Hudson, which Hebert refers to as “the middle of nowhere.”
Hebert and her husband, both 53, believe that they were targeted because the business was unappealing to local officials. Because of the nature of the business, there was often warehouse work going on and supplies were loaded in and out of the building. There were also greenhouses on the back of the property and gardening work was a big part of the daily operations.
“During one visit they told us, ‘If you don't sign off on the citations, we're taking you to jail."tweet this
Code enforcement, police and fire marshals showed up dozens of times over the course of four years to find new reasons why the business should be fined. At one point, the city even changed the classification of the property from commercial to retail, records show—which suddenly changed the code rules that must be followed.
Morgan was once again the ringleader of the visits. He would come to their property around once a month to try and find something to fine them for, Hebert said.
Years into the visits, code inspectors realized that part of the property they were inspecting and fining the owners for was actually county property, not the city’s.
Still, the Heberts were told to go along with the citations.
“During one visit they told us, ‘If you don't sign off on the citations, we're taking you to jail,’” Hebert said.
It cost them hundreds of thousands to move their business, and the traffic at their new location isn’t what it used to be. They’re currently suing the city for harassment and intimidation. While the case is still working its way through court, they believe they are eligible for millions in damages
Hebert says that beyond the monetary aspect of it all, her health has been affected.
“The stress has been horrible, I've been in and out of the hospital,” Hebert said. “You know, before we were in that property, I didn't have these issues.”
Troubled leadershipHebert and Wojciechowski are just two examples of disturbing behavior from local enforcement which have been exposed in recent years by CL’s reporting on the city.
Over the past four years, NPRPD has been caught in a laundry list of scandalous behavior, including praying with Proud Boys during a BLM march in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. One officer was caught sharing department intel with an armed right-wing vigilante who was threatening BLM protesters online. Another was caught posing in front of a confederate flag on a boat.
The department also tried to pin a false felony charge on Marlowe Jones—a BLM activist who faced five years in prison after being charged with battery on a law enforcement officer, with zero evidence. He was found not guilty by a jury of his peers, and Jones is now also in the process of suing the city.
In January, Kim Bogart, the city’s former police chief who also oversaw code enforcement, retired suddenly shortly after publicly defending the slew of bigoted incidents from his officers.
Erik Jay, the city’s current code enforcement manager, who supervised Morgan as he spied on and harassed Wojciechowski, moved to his position after he retired from Bogart’s troubled police force.
Wojciechowski is a staunch BLM supporter, and had signs in her yard during the 2020 protests in New Port Richey. She also received now-dropped violations for practicing her First Amendment right to display those signs on her property.
She’s in the process of suing the city, but her legal team is meeting obstacles with obtaining public records as part of the legal discovery process.
Last month Wojciechowski’s lawyer Kevin K. Ross-Andino sent an email to city attorney Timothy Driscoll, who was recently caught driving while very drunk and misleading St. Petersburg police officers about which city he actually represents as an attorney.
Ross-Andino sent his letter to Driscoll after months of trying to pry public records about Wojciechowski from the city.
“The easiest way, in my view, to resolve our issues is for your client to simply provide me with the documents that have been requested without any further delay or the unreasonable and unconstitutional costs that have been proposed,” wrote Ross-Andino.
Over the course of a six-month investigation, CL ran into similar obstacles with New Port Richey’s public records.
For some records obtained, Driscoll chose to impose his attorney fee of $150 an hour for city business-related text messages on his cellphone. When CL caught him not providing several texts in that request by comparing it to records provided in response to another made by a citizen, he then provided more messages, several days later.
One of them was a message containing a video that Wojciechowski had posted on TikTok, in which she was distraught about the cops illegally breaking into her property. It was sent to Driscoll by NPRPD Deputy Chief Lauren Letona.
“Morning. It’s Lauren at the PD,” the text read. “Thought you may enjoy this.”
Any response from Driscoll to Letona was not included in the public records provided.
Driscoll is just one of several city leaders who have made the news in recent months for problems regarding transparency and fairness.
Mayor Rob Marlowe publicly said last November that citizens who are upset about the code enforcement and police issues and are making public records requests about it should “just go away.”
After the acquittal of the BLM protestor Jones, City Manager Debbie Manns sent a text to a former councilman saying that she was “not happy” when he was found innocent.
Fighting backDespite facing antagonism from city leaders, some New Port Richey residents are staying to oppose what they see as a corrupt government bent on subjugation of those who speak up for their rights, in order to make room for development and profit.
Judith Allen has lived in New Port Richey for 20 years. She’s one of the people that Mayor Marlowe was referencing when he said he’d like people making records requests to go away. She first started speaking up when she saw an immigrant couple near her home being harassed by NPRPD and code enforcement a few years ago, she told CL. They’ve since moved away.
She claims she’s also been surveilled by local police, including the K-9 unit.
In a video from last year, Allen is seen confronting the city’s code manager, Jay, about entering someone’s property without being able to present a search warrant, thus violating the fourth amendment.
“There’s a total abuse of code violations,” Allen told CL.
She’s made dogged public records requests to try to get to the bottom of the city’s reasoning for the behavior. As part of CL’s investigation, several more records requests were made of city leaders. On several occasions, the requests seemed to be only partially complete or improperly redacted.
Nevertheless, what can be seen through the requests and several interviews is antagonism toward citizens and businesses that leadership deems undesirable, along with regular communications with local developers about properties they’re interested in.
Several text messages from Manns’ cell phone obtained by CL’s public records requests show her chatting with powerful players who are interested in properties around New Port Richey, and doing legwork for them.
Manns and a prominent developer named Frank Starkey stay in close contact, messages show, and hold several phone calls and in-person meetings.
Texts shows Starkey messaging Manns about a city property he was interested in and Manns offering to do the leg work on it.
“I will look it up and track history,” she said.
Another text exchange from 2021 shows Starkey messaging Manns to ask if "we" have a planning director yet.
Manns, the mayor and most city council members have not yet responded to multiple requests for comment on this story.
City council member Peter Altman has spoken up at several meetings about the need for more transparency in New Port Richey’s government.
“I am disappointed to hear of the problems that Creative Loafing has encountered and also disappointed in the lack of empathy for our property owners uncovered by your research,” Altman said.
He said that the city’s code enforcement process needs to be more open and clear and provide guidance to its residents. He added that the public records problems with the city need to be addressed, and he suggested ending the merger between code enforcement and police—something he says he’s been requesting for years.
“I haven’t heard any real defense of keeping it there,” Altman said.
He added that a major problem is that a lot of city management decision-making is done behind closed doors, and that city council members should be more involved in the process, because their job is to hold management accountable.
“We keep running into issues with honesty, and that has to change,” Altman said.
While other current city officials didn’t respond to CL, a current candidate for mayor did weigh in on the matter.
Kate Connolly is running for mayor on a platform that says New Port Richey residents deserve “an open door” to the city government and a more collaborative approach to working with residents to fix problems.
“The city continues to have these lack of clear communications and delineations of power, and a lack of transparency,” Connolly said of the ongoing issues with NPRPD and code enforcement. “I would say that there's a process issue in a lot of different departments and a lot of different places within the administration. And it's just kind of rearing its ugly head.”
Connolly said that the city administration doesn’t do a good job at explaining to residents the workings of city government, especially in regard to the code and police situation.
She estimated that she’s been hearing people in the community complain about the departments being combined into one entity for about five years now.
Among the people who’ve complained to city officials of unwarranted scrutiny are a couple that owned a beloved bar in the area.
Stephanie and Derek Pontlitz owned a bar called Pete’s Grand Central that they poured their life into, but said that once local leaders decided they didn’t want them there anymore, they were targeted by the city and had to shut down in 2020.
Before the pandemic, in 2019, a city councilmember requested that they build a small fence to prevent overflow from their bar into a public area, and they were given two $500 code citations for constructing it.
The scrutiny continued, Pontlitz claims, with their business being denigrated by local leadership until it could no longer function.
According to a city memo, the couple is asking for $1 million in damages.
For the Pontlitz family, Wojciechowski, and others who are seeking compensation from the city, a common theme is that they mainly just want the shadowy politics of city leadership to come to an end.
Even those who have moved away still want New Port Richey to be a better place for everyone who lives there.
“It’s not even just about me and what I suffered through at this point,” said Wojciechowski. “This is about the bigger picture and the long term health of the city. What kind of place will New Port Richey become if this is allowed to continue?”