Dismantle culture of corruption at Manatee County jail's farm

In this day and age of political and public sensitivity to tax expenditures, government ethics and official misconduct, revelations that Manatee County Sheriff's Office personnel at the jail's farm have been violating the public trust come as a shock. The fact that high-ranking officials and other personnel have been improperly utilizing agency property for years -- not merely a few times, but as common practice -- exacerbates the situation.

How recently retired jail supervisor Major James Higginbotham and Sgt. Frank Parks could get away with misusing county property -- horse feed, hay bales and a bulldozer among the items -- without anyone alerting the department or public for so long is a mystery that can only be blamed on one thing: the good old boy network protecting a permissive culture of entitlement. Potential informants must have learned quickly that retribution would be swift and sure.

Even more troubling revelations could be forthcoming should accusations of embezzlement of the inmate commissary fund at the jail be confirmed and criminal charges filed.

Sheriff Brad Steube released the results of his department's eight-month investigation into county jail personnel a few days ago, with the disconcerting conclusion that these ethical violations had become "common practice" at the jail's farm.

The probe began in August after the MCSO received an anonymous complaint. Steube expressed embarrassment over the investigation's findings, including that Higginbotham had allowed an "atmosphere of permissive behavior" where personnel could "borrow" agency equipment to dig ponds, trim trees and other personal uses.

"Obviously, it was a way of life from the major right on down," Steube remarked while revealing the investigation's results at a Thursday press conference. This arrogance and galling cluelessness about what constitutes improper behavior bordering on the illegal is beyond the pale.

Unfortunately, the state attorney's office reviewed the evidence, found the allegations wanting and declined prosecution of either Higginbotham or Parks, both now retired and out of reach of department discipline.

Any citation for "conduct unbecoming a deputy" comes too late for those two, but current personnel embroiled in misuse of property should be disciplined. The penalty ranges from a five-day suspension to termination.

Investigators interviewed more than 34 people, and nearly every one "participated in the custom" of borrowing agency equipment for personal use.

The court of public opinion need not meet the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard that the legal system must -- not since dozens of participants admitted to misconduct. Discipline is a must.

A strong signal must be sent to all sheriff's personnel that this outrageous behavior will not be tolerated any longer.

The jail and farm, located near Port Manatee at the Hillsborough County line, may be miles from agency headquarters but no distance is far enough to escape ethical standards.

With the report in hand, Steube adopted a new policy prohibiting any personal use of agency property, which, he noted, should simply be common sense. For some, this must be spelled out in no uncertain terms, and it's surprising the department didn't already have such a policy on record.

The culture of corruption and good old boy network at the farm must be dismantled permanently.

Steube made the right move in requesting an outside agency investigate the embezzlement accusations. He asked Clerk of the Circuit Court R.B. "Chips" Shore to conduct an audit of the commissary fund, which pays for inmate needs. Shore retains the option to expand the probe should evidence warrant the pursuit of a broader investigation.

The public deserves nothing less. We must know how deep the corruption went.