Manatee sheriff 'embarrassed' by conduct uncovered at jail

MANATEE -- The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office released an internal investigation Thursday that sustained allegations of misuse and theft of the agency’s equipment at the jail’s farm during a period of several years by two high-ranking personnel who recently retired.

Investigators determined that former Major James Higginbotham and former Sgt. Frank "Buddy" Parks" were guilty of conduct unbecoming a deputy. But allegations of "unlawful conduct" were not sustained, according to the sheriff's office.

Sheriff Brad Steube said he was “embarrassed” by the findings of the investigation.

“We all make mistakes. And that’s why we have in place a professional standards unit and folks that actually do these investigations,” Steube said. “Is this pretty bad? Well, heck yeah.”

The investigation, which began in August, was launched after the sheriff’s office received an anonymous tip from a current employee at the sheriff’s office who Sheriff Brad Steube declined to name on Thursday.

According to the investigation, the deputies used horse feed, hay feed, farm supplies, and utility trailers for their personal use.

Steube said 34 personnel were interviewed during the investigation. Their findings were sent to the State Attorney’s Office to assess if criminal charges would be filed. But according to court records, charges will be not be filed against Higginbotham and Parks.

Parks and his wife, deputy Rhonda Parks, retired last week. Higginbotham left in June, but used accumulated time off until his final day on Jan. 2, said sheriff’s office spokesman Dave Bristow.

Their retirement pensions will not be jeopardized because of the investigation, Steube said, but new policies concerning the personal use of sheriff’s office property were implemented during the investigation.

Although the probe began late last year, its existence came to light this week after Charles B. Smith, chairman of the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference chapter, sent Clerk of the Circuit Court R.B. "Chips" Shore a letter stating that claims of criminal activity by current and former personnel had been brought to the sheriff's office.

The allegations include embezzlement of the inmate commissary fund, theft of equipment purchased with county funds, misuse of county funds and using sheriff's office equipment for "personal benefit while on duty," the letter states.

Earlier this week, Shore spoke with Steube about conducting a probe on the embezzlement claim. Because the law enforcement agency doesn't fall under the clerk's jurisdiction, investigators must obtain permission from the sheriff's office to conduct the probe.

Steube agreed to the investigation.

The only allegation being reviewed by auditors is the alleged embezzlement of the inmate commissary fund, which provides money to whatever needs the inmates may have.

Blevins said the sheriff's office was "fully cooperative" during the meeting. She must now meet with Shore about the findings. The Manatee County clerk makes the final decision on whether or not to pursue the investigation.

Shore and Blevins were scheduled to meet Thursday morning.If Shore approves the investigation, it will take a few months to complete.

Although auditors needed permission to review the claim, Blevins said Steube "doesn't have a say" as to what information they access.

"We can look at whatever we want in regards to the commissary fund," Blevins said.

Auditors will review documents, conduct interviews and visit the jail.

Once the investigation is complete, a report -- which will be public record -- will be sent to Shore and the sheriff's office.

"It's up to them to incorporate whatever recommendations that we make," Blevins said.

Smith said he knew about the sheriff's office investigation. But when he heard through sources that one of the sheriff's office employees allegedly linked to the claims recently retired, he decided to write the letter."The intention of my letter is to drive this to the public domain so that everyone could be held accountable," Smith said.

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