Steube defends investigation of property misuse at Manatee sheriff's office

MANATEE -- As the Manatee County Sheriff's Office implements a new policy against personal use of county property, some are questioning whether the department did enough in its investigation that found two former high-ranking officials used taxpayers' property for personal use.

After the eight-month investigation, former Maj. James Higginbotham and former Sgt. Frank Parks were cited for "conduct unbecoming a deputy," but allegations of "unlawful conduct" were not sustained.

The 130-page report details a culture where, Sheriff Brad Steube has acknowledged, it was acceptable for employees at the jail's farm to use property purchased with tax dollars for person

al reasons.

Andrew Scott, president of AJS Consulting Inc., a law enforcement consulting firm, reviewed the investigation's report and said it was "very well done."

But Scott was "surprised" the state attorney's office declined to file charges against Higginbotham and Parks.

"Was there enough evidence to suggest that there was theft? I think there was," he concluded.

The state attorney's office did not file charges against the pair on any of the 18 allegations submitted by the sheriff's office due to lack of evidence and criminal intent, court documents show.

But, Scott said: "Could a citizen of Manatee County have taken and borrowed the same equipment from the sheriff's office? And the answer is no. So what makes them (Higginbotham and Parks) any different? ... It stinks all the way around."

Alphonso Junious, a retired police officer running for sheriff as an unaffiliated candidate, questioned how Steube could have known nothing about the property misuse at the farm.

"I would never believe that something can go on in your department for years and you don't have a clue that it's happening," Junious said. "I think there's always something that's going to happen that will allow you to know that something's not quite right."

Steube denied knowing about the property misuse before the investigation.

"That's totally ludicrous," Steube said. "Then why all of a sudden now did I do an investigation?"

Scott, Junious and William Waldron, a former sheriff's deputy also challenging Steube in the Republican primary, also questioned the disciplinary action taken afterward.

While still employed by the sheriff, Parks was presented with a proposed disciplinary action: a 30-day suspension without pay and a demotion from sergeant to deputy. But within the five-day period where he could request a hearing, Parks retired.

Scott, a former chief of Boca Raton police, said Parks's proposed discipline was "a little bit light," adding that if he still worked at the sheriff's office, Parks should have been fired.

Higginbotham began using accumulated time off in June until his retirement date Jan. 2.

Steube said Parks was not terminated because "he said he had permission to do all of that stuff from the major."

According to the report, Higginbotham allowed Parks and his brother-in-law Warren Rogers, a sheriff's office volunteer, to borrow a track hoe excavator to use on a property leased by Rogers.

The investigation sustained that Parks used the excavator on the property. "Jamey actually gave him permission to dig that pond... And that was the highest charge," Steube said.

More than 30 people were interviewed by investigators. Most of them admitted to "borrowing" sheriff's office property, including plants, eggs, weed whackers and chain saws.

Steube said he did not seek disciplinary action against those employees because they took sheriff's office items without criminal intent and had permission from their supervisors.

But Scott said "some type of discipline should have been in order," from a letter of reprimand to a suspension.

Waldron, a former sheriff's office detective, agreed.

"Just because something is common practice does not make it right," Waldron said.

Waldron also said Parks should not have been kept on as sergeant during the investigation because he may have tried to interfere with the probe.

Jeremy "Jay" Skillman, who managed McClure Farms leased properties at the time Rogers leased, told investigators that Parks had called him and "attempted to get him to agree with his recollection of events," the report states.

But Steube said it was Parks' word against Skillman's.

Since the investigation's release, the sheriff's office has implemented a new policy banning the personal use of the agency's goods, and Clerk of Circuit Court R.B. "Chips" Shore has launched an investigation -- with Steube's permission -- of the agency's inmate commissary fund.

The sheriff's office investigation couldn't sustain allegations that Higginbotham and Parks repaired their personal trailers by using the commissary fund, which provides money for any needs inmates may have.

Parks has not returned calls for comment. Higginbotham said he would comment after Shore completes his investigation.

"We have over 1,100 employees at the sheriff's office and the majority of our employees are good, hard-working people," Steube said. "Unfortunately, in this particular instance, we had a few that made mistakes."

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