Money laundering baffles Fla. sheriff's colleagues
By Melissa Nelson
SHALIMAR, Fla. — Sheriff Charlie Morris preached integrity. The word hung in large letters in his headquarters. His peers elected him head of Florida's sheriffs association and gave him a seat on the state board that disciplines law officers who stray.
But it was an act. For years he'd been running an elaborate scheme in Okaloosa County, giving employees bonuses from federal homeland security grants and other sources and requiring a kickback in return.
He had the department buy him new cars so frequently, it's unlikely they ever lost that just-off-the-lot smell. He put a mistress on the county payroll for a highly paid, no-show job.
When FBI agents arrested him in February as he partied in Las Vegas, Morris had $30,000 cash in the hotel safe and $5,000 in his pockets. He received at least $114,000 in kickbacks over the last few years while doling out much more than that in illegal bonuses -- a figure that's still being tallied. He pleaded guilty last month and faces decades in prison when sentenced July 28.
"It is very bizarre. Here is a man who has seen numerous investigations over his career, he knows that he's not going to get away with this and yet he chooses to do it anyway. I'm disgusted," said interim sheriff Edward Spooner, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement training director who had known Morris for years.
Morris, a 59-year-old retired Air Force security officer, seemed a perfect fit for the conservative Panhandle County of about 175,000. Sprawling Eglin Air Force Base takes up most of the land and its glittering white beaches are popular with tourists.
He left nearby Hurlburt Air Force Base as a major with 18 years in the military and joined the Fort Walton Beach Police Department for four years before he was elected sheriff in 1996. The job paid him $133,000 a year.
"He instilled professionalism around here, improved training. He had a vision and created a culture of doing things right every time," said Maj. Larry Ashley, a 20-year department veteran who reported the sheriff to the FBI.
Morris' downfall began in January when Ashley started asking questions about a car and county-paid gas credit card the sheriff had sent to a Tallahassee woman he'd hired for an $80,000-a-year job. She was rarely in the office, her duties were vague and her employment wasn't listed on most official records.
When the longtime detective talked to George Wilson, the agency's fleet operations director, he confirmed his suspicion _ that the woman was Morris' mistress. But Ashley learned much more. Wilson told him the sheriff had given him bonuses and ordered him to return money in cash. The sheriff said the money would go to a department charity fund.
"It's pure, unadulterated money laundering," Ashley said.
He soon learned other employees had also received thousands in bonuses. He and Wilson went to the FBI.
Wilson feared for his job and his safety. The sheriff had repeatedly ordered him not to discuss either the bonus money or his order to send the car to the woman in Tallahassee.
"The stress level of this to me was unbelievable," Wilson said.
But Wilson had privately questioned Morris' management decisions for years. The sheriff frequently purchased new cars for personal use and traded them in with very few miles, costing the county a lot of money. A recent audit found Morris spent more than $170,000 buying 41 new GMC Envoys, Chevrolet Impalas and other cars _ about one every four months.
Wilson's assistant, Roberta Pifer, became the department's third confidential informant days after Wilson and Ashley went to the FBI.
Morris unexpectedly deposited $3,000 in her account and asked her to return $1,000 in cash. It was the first time she had received a bonus.
She told Wilson, who told her to talk to the FBI. Agents traced the cash that she returned to Morris and recovered it from his Las Vegas hotel safe.
Pifer felt betrayed by the man she considered a father figure.
When she was ill with cancer, Morris checked on her frequently _ even breaking down in tears when her treatment wasn't going well.
"He would talk about his grandchildren all the time," she said. "He was a very compassionate man."
Morris and his office manager, Teresa Adams, who was also the department's human resources director and assisted in the scam, face up to 85 years in prison after pleading guilty in May to federal fraud, money laundering and conspiracy charges. Prosecutors say more corruption and scandal within the department will be revealed as state investigators continue their probe of other employees.
While prosecutors haven't specified which grants Morris used in the scheme, it's common for sheriffs to receive homeland security money for training or public awareness campaigns.
Morris has refused to discuss the case publicly. It's not clear how the money was spent, other than on the Vegas trips.
Morris and Adams have agreed to cooperate with the state attorney's office as part of their plea agreements. Adams' attorney, Drew Pinkerton, said the longtime office manager was "protective of Morris," and wanted to please her boss.
"She wakes up every morning thinking about this. I am sure she will receive some prison time," he said.
The betrayals by Morris' and his cohorts still cut deep. Spooner fired five employees at the 300-employee department during his first weeks in office.
"It took tremendous courage for the confidential informants to stand up to the sheriff _ they knew that if they were not correct in their allegations that were at great risk," Spooner said.
Copyright 2009 Associated Press