TAMPA, Florida (AP) — When police arrived at his home to investigate a hit-and-run, Joseph Ruddy, one of the most prolific federal narcotics prosecutors, looked so drunk he could barely stand upright, leaning on the tailgate of his pick-up to keep his balance.
But apparently he was under control enough to wait with his US Department of Justice calling card in hand.
“What are you trying to hand me?” asked an officer. “You realize that if they look at my body-worn CCTV footage and they see this, this is very much going to happen.”
Footage obtained by The Associated Press showed that Ruddy was apparently trying to use his position to play down the fallout from a July 4 crash in which he was accused of drunkenly hitting another vehicle and leaving the scene.
But despite being charged, Ruddy, 59, stayed on the job for two months, representing the United States in court last week to win another victory for the sprawling task force he helped build against cocaine smuggling 20 years ago. . sea.
On Wednesday, a day after the AP asked the Justice Department about Ruddy’s status, the veteran prosecutor was removed from three pending criminal cases. A Justice Department spokesman would not say whether he was suspended, but said Ruddy had been relieved of his oversight role at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa while he was still employed. The case has also been referred to the Office of the Inspector General.
Such an inspector general’s investigation would likely focus on whether Ruddy was trying to use his public office for private gain, said Kathleen Clark, a professor of legal ethics at Washington University in St. Louis, who viewed the footage.
“It’s hard to see what this could be other than an attempt to improperly influence the police officer to make things easy for him,” Clark said. “What might be his purpose in handing over his calling card to the U.S. Attorney’s Office?”
Ruddy, whose blood alcohol level was 0.17%, twice the legal limit, was charged with driving under the influence with property damage – a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison. Despite his own admissions and testimonies, he was not charged with leaving the scene of an accident.
Neither Ruddy nor his attorney texted back asking for comment.
Ruddy is known in law enforcement circles as one of the architects of Operation Panama Express, or PANEX — a task force created in 2000 to crack down on cocaine trafficking at sea, involving resources from the U.S. Coast Guard, FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Immigration and Immigration were bundled. Customs Enforcement.
Historically, the information generated by PANEX contributes to more than 90% of naval drug prohibitions by the US Coast Guard. Between 2018 and 2022, the Coast Guard removed or destroyed 888 tons of cocaine worth an estimated $26 billion and apprehended 2,776 suspected smugglers, a senior Coast Guard official said in congressional testimony in March. Most of these cases were handled by Ruddy and his colleagues in Tampa, where PANEX is headquartered.
Ruddy, a former Ironman triathlete, has a reputation among lawyers for his hard work and toughness in the courtroom. His biggest cases included some of the early renditions from Colombia of top smugglers to the feared Cali cartel.
But most of the cases handled outside his office mainly involve poor fishermen from Central and South America, who are the lowest rungs of the drug trade. Often the drugs don’t even make their way to US shores and the constitutional guarantees of due process that normally apply in US criminal cases are only loosely adhered to.
“Ruddy is at the heart of a costly and aggressive prosecutor-led dragnet that each year takes hundreds of low-ranking cocaine traffickers from the oceans and imprisons them in the U.S.,” said Kendra McSweeney, an Ohio State University geographer who is part of a team studying maritime prohibition policy.
Research from the Ohio State Interdiction Lab found that between 2014 and 2020, the average sentence for smugglers caught at sea and prosecuted in Tampa was 10 years – longer than any other court in the country, and compared to seven years and six months in Miami, which handles the second largest number of such cases.
Last Friday, nearly two months after his arrest, Ruddy was in court to uphold a settlement in the case of a Brazilian man, Flavio Fontes Pereira, who was found by the US Coast Guard in February with more than 3.3 tons cocaine aboard a sailboat off the coast of Guinea, in West Africa.
After spending two weeks aboard the US Coast Guard vessel, Pereira made his first appearance in March in Tampa, charged under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act, which gives the US unique powers of arrest anywhere on the high seas when it is determined that a ship is “without nationality.”
Ruddy is due to appear in court on September 27 in his own case. He is charged with swiping sideways from an SUV whose driver had been waiting to turn at a red light, clipping off a side mirror and tearing off another piece of the vehicle that was caught in the car. fender of Ruddy’s pickup.
“He didn’t even hit the brakes,” a witness told police. “He just kept going and swerved all the way. I thought, ‘No, he’s going to hurt someone.’ So I just followed him until I got the tag number and just called to report it.
When officers arrived at Ruddy’s home in the Temple Terrace suburb, they found him hunched over his pickup, holding his keys and using the vehicle for support, the report said. The officers noted that he had urinated on himself, was unable to walk unassisted, and failed a sobriety test.
“I understand we might have a better night,” said Tampa Police Department officer Taylor Grant before glancing at the business card.
“Why didn’t you stop?” the officer asked.
“I didn’t know it was this serious,” Ruddy said indistinctly.
“You hit a vehicle and you fled,” the officer said. “You ran away because you were drunk. You probably don’t realize you hit the car.”
Goodman reported from Miami. Contact AP’s global research team at [email protected].