Experts: Morris arrest fits patterns
The Northwest Florida Daily News by Andrew Gant - March 7, 2009
Charlie Morris isn't the first Okaloosa sheriff to be suspended. In Florida, some people say he won't be the last. "The arrogance is definitely out there. If I think everyone loves me, and I'm a great sheriff and I want to skim, it's not a hard thing to do," said Darren Freeman, an ex-police lieutenant commander in Haines City, at the center of Florida. But "when something like this hits, it makes the other sheriffs and administrators tighten up a little bit. "It's like getting a traffic ticket. For the first couple weeks, you slow down."
Morris last week became the second sheriff to be suspended in Okaloosa County. He joined H. Isle Enzor, who was punished along with two constables for lax enforcement of gambling laws in 1950. Enzor was re-elected three years later. But on Monday, Morris will have his first scheduled court appearance in Pensacola on federal charges of fraud, theft and money laundering. The FBI and IRS complaint against him lists five confidential witnesses. Some in the agency received tens of thousands of dollars in direct-deposit "bonuses" from the sheriff - and returned most of the money in cash. Morris hasn't said much about his charges, and he could face more at the state level. What he may have done with any kickback money - and who in his employ knew about it - is under investigation. In response, one famous retired cop said simply, "The system has not changed." "Somehow, we keep electing these ego-driven, capitalist, greedy people to office," said Frank Serpico, the man who inspired the 1973 Al Pacino film "Serpico" about corruption and intimidation in the New York City Police Department. "We can't just stand by and let them run us into the poorhouse. "The government, people have to realize, is the most corrupt in the world." Serpico, famous today for the film and for his testimony against the NYPD, did not mince words on Morris.
"If you're gonna quote me on anything, that should be it. Why do people refuse to believe that the people we entrust with our nation's safety are not all trustworthy people?" he said in a telephone interview from his home in New York state. "That is what causes us to fall in the same pit again." Interim Sheriff Ed Spooner has thanked local residents for treating his deputies with respect despite the scandal. But rumors trail Morris and some of his former staff. Two employees, including Morris' chief of staff, Sabra Thornton, have had their positions eliminated. Thornton has not been implicated in any wrong-doing.
Freeman, meanwhile, actually could be Morris' ally. He is director of the Florida Law Enforcement and Correctional Officer Association (FLECA), a consulting firm for lawmen facing criminal or administrative investigations. FLECA provides free "expert witness testimony" and written reports for association members on trial. Although it typically helps officers below the rank of lieutenant, "if he (Morris) applied to us, I wouldn't turn him away," Freeman said. But "it sounds like he's got serious problems." Frequent bonuses are "not at all" common in law enforcement agencies, especially if they're awarded on short notice and outside of the budget, Freeman said. When they are, the sheriff needs help. And during an investigation, the helpers are questioned.
"If she's put in a spot, she's gonna sing," Freeman said of Morris' finance director, Terry Adams, who was arrested at the Sheriff's Office, the same day as Morris, on the same federal charges. "If there's a good documentation trail, he's got a serious problem." So far, for reporters, most trails have led to the same place: the "ongoing investigation" blocking access to payroll records, personnel files and information as to who was involved. The changes in staff provoked more questions. "Oftentimes, embezzlers get into what they consider to be a non-sharable problem," said Richard Hollinger, a criminology professor at the University of Florida whose research includes white-collar crime and deviance in the workplace. "Non-sharable in the sense that they've got to figure a way out - they can't go to a bank, can't go to their family, can't go to their wife. It's just something they've got to solve themselves."
Hollinger said embezzlers typically fall into categories: absconders, who take the money and run, and borrowers, who claim they plan to pay it back. "And then there's sort of a third category of people who have personal problems, and that group may be what we're dealing with with the sheriff," Hollinger said. At his home in Shalimar on the night after his arrest in Las Vegas, Morris only said he had "a big heart" and that there's more to his story than the feds' allegations. He didn't say what. No one answered his door Saturday. For Serpico, it doesn't matter. Despite the fact that Morris was turned in by his staff, Serpico said it's still too risky to expose fraud. "What matters is, to date, an honest cop is still afraid of informing on a crooked cop for fear of reprisal," he said. "Until that changes, corruption is as bad as it ever was."