Documents reveal sheriff's deputies defended their actions

MANATEE -- Two former high-ranking officials defended their personal use of Manatee County Sheriff's Office's equipment and other property during an investigation that revealed a "lax" chain of command where borrowing the property was not discouraged.

Sheriff's office documents released Friday at the request of the Bradenton Herald detail how the jail's former supervisor, former Maj. James Higginbotham, and former Sgt. Frank "Buddy" Parks explained their use of property belonging to the jail's farm.

And they highlight a culture where, Sheriff Brad Steube has acknowledged, it was acceptable for employees to take property purchased with tax dollars for their own use.

According to interview transcripts and other documents, Higginbotham and Parks -- and some other farm employees -- didn't think twice about taking and using sheriff's office's property for personal use.

Several witnesses, such as Deputy Ranel Roberts, told investigators it was "acceptable" to borrow sheriff's office equipment as long as it was returned "in a timely fashion," documents show.

According to the investi

gation, Higginbotham and Parks took horse feed, hay and even a bulldozer to their homes. Higginbotham also allowed Parks and his brother-in-law, sheriff's office volunteer Warren Rogers, to use equipment, including a track hoe excavator, on property leased by Rogers. The former major also placed sheriff's office cattle on his property.

A sheriff's internal affairs report released this week after an eight-month investigation cited the men for "conduct unbecoming a deputy," but allegations of "unlawful conduct" were not sustained.

After reviewing the findings, the state attorney's office declined to prosecute Higginbotham, Parks or anyone else.

Parks, who resigned last week, has not returned repeated calls for comment. Higginbotham, whose retirement took effect Jan. 2, told the Herald on Friday he would comment after a new investigation launched by the clerk of the circuit court is complete.

Clerk of Circuit Court R.B. "Chips" Shore is investigating possible embezzlement of the inmate commissary fund at the jail, which auditors say will probably take a couple months. Depending on what the auditors find, the investigation could be expanded to include other sheriff's office operations.

The newly released documents show that Higginbotham denied knowing about the farm's veterinarian checking out horses that weren't sheriff's office property, and he denied taking wood boards from the farm to build a fence and stalls on his land.

Higginbotham did acknowledge he allowed Parks and Rogers to borrow a track hoe excavator because he said the sheriff's office might later become interested in Rogers' property.

He also admitted to placing cattle belonging to the sheriff's office at his leased property on Golf Course Road.

"We were scrambling for grass and trying to get cows wherever we could for a while," he said, according to a transcript of an interview with sheriff's investigators.

When it came to loading bales of hay on his truck, Higginbotham said he distributed it throughout other areas where the sheriff's office kept cows, and that he used a different kind of hay to feed his personal livestock. He also allowed employees to take hay and horse feed home when they used their personal horses for work.

Several witnesses told investigators they saw both Higginbotham and Park loading hay and horse feed onto their trucks.

Higginbotham also admitted to taking a Bobcat utility vehicle home for several months, because deputies at the vocational building were "arguing and fighting" over who would drive it.

Parks was interviewed six times. When told by investigators that there were photos and video of him digging a hole with the track hoe excavator, Parks denied the claims. But the following day, after "not sleeping all night kicking this back and forth," he said he had, in fact, "done a little bit of digging."

Parks also said the use of sheriff's office equipment on Rogers's leased property was justified because they had plans of placing sheriff's office cattle there in the future.

"And that's the thought process we've had all along," he said to investigators. "Our full intention is to put the MSO cattle down there one day."

Parks also admitted to taking hay and horse feed with Higginbotham's permission, adding that he would replenish it later.

Former deputy Rhonda Parks, Parks's wife who also retired last week, told investigators she bought a damaged industrial fan for $39 with a sheriff's office purchase order that was repaired by inmates. It was first used at the farm, but the Parkses used it at their home in 2009 to cool off their grandson's steer.

Parks said she would ask Higginbotham for permission to "borrow" sheriff's office property and described the former major as "very lax."

Rhonda Parks described to investigators that it was "common practice" for employees to take home any item they needed for personal use, including plants, eggs, weed whackers and chain saws.

"If you needed something, you ran out to the farm and got it," Parks said during the interview. "That's from the major all the way down."

An internal affairs investigation of Rhonda Parks found that allegations of "unlawful conduct" -- such as a claim that she had used county money to buy horse care products for her personal animals and that she had taken eggs produced by county-owned chickens -- were not sustained.

Most of the more than 30 people interviewed in the probe admitted to participating in the practice. Steube said during a news conference Thursday that no action will be taken against them because they used sheriff's office items without malice.

A new policy banning the personal use of sheriff's office property had not been implemented yet Friday, according to sheriff's spokesman Dave Bristow.

The Herald also reviewed Parks and Higginbotham's sheriff's office personnel files.

Higginbotham, born in Joplin, Mo., worked at two Missouri law enforcement agencies and had a short stint in merchandise at Disney World before joining the sheriff's office in 1986.

One reference said Higginbotham "can be left in charge of other people as well as their possessions."

He was investigated once before by internal affairs, but the complaint was unfounded, said professional standards chief inspector Ed Judy.

However, in a "letter of counseling" dated February 1988, Higginbotham's supervisor warned him to "eliminate personal radio traffic" between him and his wife, also employed by the sheriff's office.

Born in Bradenton, Parks joined the sheriff's office in 1993 and always worked at the farm. An employee evaluation dated this year notes that he "ensures accountability for tools, equipment, and facility keys."

Parks has been investigated twice before by internal affairs, Judy said, but neither was sustained.

In 2002, an anonymous person complained that Parks was poaching alligators at the farm when Parks was actually checking a pond where the sheriff's office raises tilapia for food to make sure there were no alligators.

This year, Parks was investigated for reportedly giving an inmate personal information, which is not allowed. The complaint was not sustained because he gave the inmate a business card for a job reference.

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