Manatee sheriff's officials misused public property; possible embezzlement probe ongoing

MANATEE -- Two former high-ranking officials at the Manatee County Sheriff's Office were using the agency's property for personal use and turning a blind eye to other employees who took part in what became a "common practice" at the jail's farm for several years.

An eight-month investigation found that former jail supervisor Major James Higginbotham and Sgt. Frank "Buddy" Parks misused the agency's property -- including horse feed, bales of hay and a bulldozer -- and allowed other personnel working at the farm to do the same.

A sheriff's office report released Thursday cited them for "conduct unbecoming a deputy," but said that allegations of "unlawful conduct" were not sustained.

The state attorney's office, which reviewed evidence in the case, has decided not to prosecute Higginbotham or Parks.

Clerk of Circuit Court R.B. "Chips" Shore began a separate investigation Thursday of possible embezzlement of the jail's inmate commissary fund. Depending on what auditors find, the investigation could be expanded to include other sheriff's office operations, according to an "investigation plan" issued by Shore.

Sheriff Brad Steube asked Shore to conduct the audit.

Steube said he was "embarrassed" by the findings of the investigation released Thursday. The probe was conducted by criminal and internal affairs detectives from his agency.

"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 it pretty bad? Well, heck, yeah."

Neither Higginbotham nor Parks returned repeated calls from the Herald for comment.

According to the report released Thursday, Higginbotham allowed personnel to take home sheriff's office property, which created an "atmosphere of permissive behavior" where employees felt comfortable enough to "borrow" sheriff's office equipment, including chain saws, grass trimmers and poles saws.

Both Higginbotham and Parks were both occasionally seen loading bags of horse feed and hay into their trucks, the report shows.

Higginbotham also allowed Parks and his brother-in-law, sheriff's office volunteer Warren Rogers, to use equipment, including a portable water tank, trough and a track hoe excavator on a property leased by Rogers.

According to the report, Higginbotham also placed sheriff's office cattle on a property on Golf Course Road across from his home at the time for about one month. The report also shows that Parks used the track hoe excavator to dig a pond at Rogers' leased property.

More than 34 people were interviewed during the investigation. Nearly every person interviewed had "participated in the custom" of using sheriff's office property outside work, the report shows.

Steube said it is unknown how long the misuse of sheriff's office property has been going on.

"Obviously, it was a way of life from the major right on down," Steube said.

A new policy that will ban any kind of personal use of the agency's property is expected to be implemented this week, Steube said. It will be sent out to all sheriff's office personnel.

"Unfortunately, you can't write a policy and a general code for everything. To me, it would be common sense that you couldn't use those items personally," Steube said.

The investigation, which began in August, was launched after the sheriff's office received an anonymous complaint from a current employee whom Steube declined to name Thursday.

The penalty for conduct unbecoming of a deputy ranges from a five-day suspension to termination.

But Higginbotham and Parks are no longer at the sheriff's office.

Higginbotham left in June, but used accumulated time off until his final day Jan. 2, said sheriff's office spokesman Dave Bristow.

While still at the sheriff's office, Parks was presented last week with a proposed disciplinary action: a 30-day suspension without pay and a demotion from sergeant to deputy.

He had five days to respond and request a hearing. But last week, he and his wife, Rhonda Parks, who was also investigated for taking eggs from the farm, retired. Investigators determined that allegations that Rhonda Parks was involved in wrongdoing were not sustained.

Higginbotham began working at the sheriff's office in 1986. He was promoted to major in 2007. When he retired, Higginbotham was making $112,336 a year.

Parks started at the sheriff's office in 1993 and was a sergeant during the final eight years of his career. He was making a $72,200 annual salary.

Their retirement pensions will not be jeopardized because of the investigation, Steube said.

Higginbotham was replaced by Major Tony Ackles, who is now head of the jail, located near Port Manatee and which also includes a working farm.

About 40 inmates -- selected based on security and their willingness to work -- help out at the farm every day, where their duties include feeding chickens, mending fences and growing crops, said sheriff's office spokesman Randy Warren. The sheriff's office also completed a criminal investigation that was submitted to the state attorney's office. According to court records, charges will not be filed against Higginbotham or Parks because of a lack of evidence and of criminal intent.

But the investigation is not over.

Earlier this week, Charles B. Smith, chairman of the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference chapter, sent 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, which provides money for whatever needs the inmates may have. In the report, it was alleged that Higginbotham and Parks used the inmate commissary fund to pay for repairs of their trailers.

The allegation was not sustained by the sheriff's office investigation.

But Shore said Thursday that his auditors will begin an investigation of the commissary fund.

"We're going to look at the commissary, but in all audits and investigations like this, if something else comes up, then we reserve the right" to further investigate, Shore said, adding that the clerk's office would seek "outside help" if necessary.

After hearing results of the report Thursday, Smith said it "makes absolutely no sense" that Steube declined to provide the name of the employee who tipped off the sheriff's office.

"This is not the end of that investigation," Smith added.

Laura C. Morel, crime/immigration reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041.