A dozen Florida Highway Patrol troopers from Tallahassee to Miami were fired, forced to retire or otherwise disciplined after an in-house investigation into whether they were billing the agency for hours they spent working from home, eating at restaurants and visiting girlfriends and relatives.
The disciplinary action came as part of a probe into the agency’s Statewide Overtime Action Response program, which is designed to beef up traffic enforcement in high-priority areas, including Interstate 10 in Leon County. Troopers, who are paid time and a half to patrol the areas, are expected to aggressively enforce traffic laws when working SOAR.
Last fall, Terry Rhodes, executive director of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, asked the agency’s Office of Inspector General to review the SOAR program to identify potential waste, fraud and abuse. In June, lawmakers included $5.1 million in the state budget for SOAR overtime. Over the past five fiscal years, they gave more than $25 million for SOAR OT.
The OIG reviewed the activity of 36 troopers and officers who turned in the most SOAR hours among the FHP’s 12 troops across the state. Some 13 were alleged to have violated policies, though one of them, a sergeant, retired before the investigation began.
But attorneys representing the troopers say they are being punished for following longstanding, unwritten rules of the Highway Patrol. They said troopers and officers alike have been paid for years for working at home or eating meals at restaurants, though they were expected to leap into action when they got calls.
Of the dozen who were investigated, three were fired, four either retired during the investigation or were forced to retire, three were suspended, one was reprimanded and another is facing termination, according to records obtained by the Tallahassee Democrat. Several of the troopers were longtime veterans of the agency, with 30-plus years of service.
The OIG found the following:
- Troopers reported SOAR overtime while visiting their parents, wives or girlfriends at their homes and workplaces.
- Troopers claimed regular and overtime hours while they were at home and restaurants.
- Troopers failed to radio in that they were going off or back on duty while taking meal breaks at restaurants.
- Troopers failed to activate their Automatic Vehicle Locators, designed to track their movements, and in some cases deactivated them.
Two of the disciplined personnel were based in Tallahassee: Sgt. Jim Beauford, who’d been with the agency about six years, and Trooper Michael Stallworth, who has 33 years with the Highway Patrol.
Beauford, who was promoted to sergeant just before the OIG began investigating him, was fired but couldn’t appeal because after his promotion, he was considered a probationary employee. The agency moved to fire Stallworth but later backed off. On Aug. 24, he entered into a settlement with DHSMV agreeing to a 40-hour suspension.
Tallahassee attorney Sidney Matthew, who is representing Stallworth and another trooper, Jesse Moore of the Lake City district, said troopers are being punished for “breaking bread together” and taking their work home with them. He said troopers were never told before the investigation that the FHP’s “unwritten, lax practices” would no longer be tolerated.
“The FHP management is living a double standard and they are out of touch with the troops,” Matthew said. “They don’t know how the troops are operating and apparently they don’t care.”
Stephen Webster, a Tallahassee attorney representing Beauford, said his client and others were investigated for following agency practices in place “since time immemorial.”
“He had a stellar career without blemish prior to this,” Webster said. “To me, he is everything that I would want in a law enforcement officer and someone representing the badge in an agency.”
Matthew said it’s not the first time FHP has punished troopers for following off-the-books policies. In 2013, he represented Trooper Charles Swindle, who was fired after opting not to give speeding tickets to two legislators he pulled over for excessive speed. Matthew, who challenged the firing and won Swindle’s reinstatement, argued the trooper was following an unwritten rule to not ticket lawmakers because they control agency funding and raises.
OT for work outside SOAR areas
The Inspector General for DHSMV analyzed computer-aided dispatch records, time sheets, SOAR reports and records from Automatic Vehicle Locators to determine whether troopers were really working when they said they were.
In the Stallworth case, the OIG found he claimed 170 hours of SOAR overtime during five months in 2014 and 2015. Stallworth spent more than 21 hours, or about 12 percent of the time, outside the SOAR area and more than seven and a half hours, or nearly 4.5 percent of the time, at his home.
Over two days in February, he claimed 20 hours of regular pay but was at home, restaurants or a gas station for “extended periods of time” totaling more than five and a half hours, or more than a quarter of the time. On May 28, DHSMV notified Stallworth it was planning to dismiss him.
“Your actions and disregard for department ethical standards have eroded your credibility and show a pattern of using your position to obtain personal benefit at the expense of the public you are sworn to serve,” wrote Col. David Brierton, then-director of the FHP.
Matthew refuted the charges against Stallworth in a written response to the agency, saying a “culture of unwritten employment practices and expectations” didn’t follow the FHP manual for overtime, meal breaks and working at home.
“Command staff has never strictly and uniformly enforced the written letter of the law of FHP policies in these areas although staff has been well aware of these unwritten lax practices and even participated in them,” he wrote.
The OIG made similar findings against many of the other troopers. In the Moore case, the OIG found that from Jan. 15, 2015, through Feb. 6, 2015, he turned in 179 hours, including 32 hours of SOAR overtime and 6 hours of other overtime. The OIG found that he spent about 55 of the hours, about 31 percent of the time, working at home.
But Matthew said troopers working at home was a common practice and that Moore was told it was OK as long as he was in uniform and subject to calls. Moore is appealing his termination; a hearing is set for Sept. 29 before the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission.
“All troopers and officers conduct work at home, remain on call and answer the radio at home and do paperwork at home in their uniforms,” he said. “They’re not sitting around in their pajamas and bedroom slippers and watching ‘Captain Kangaroo.’ ”
‘Drop your fork and go’
FHP has policies allowing troopers to take one-hour meal breaks on top of their eight-hour shifts, though troopers are supposed to notify dispatch when they go off duty to eat and return to duty when they’re done. The OIG found that in my cases, the troopers under investigation failed to do so.
FHP brass Tallahassee issued a directive in early June — after many of the OIG investigations began — saying “work is not authorized to be done at your home in any situation.”
Matthew said that under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, employers who do not allow overtime during meal breaks or work at home must enforce the rule consistently. If they don’t, they are deemed to have “suffered or permitted” the practice and must pay the overtime.
FHP’s leave policy says, “members on meal periods and rest breaks will be subject to call during this period.” Matthew said that more than half the time, troopers respond to calls during meals.
“Sometimes you have to drop your fork and go,” Matthew said. “Most of the time you’re going to get a call, and you must respond to it.”
Troopers agree not to contact media
Several of the FHP members who were investigated entered into settlements with the agency, agreeing to drop any claims and not to seek any damages in exchange for suspensions and in some cases retirement. As part of the settlements, FHP promised not to proceed with harsher punishments, including termination.
The agreements included gag orders to prevent troopers from speaking out.
“The parties shall not initiate any contact with the media to publish or explain the terms of this settlement agreement. Contacts by the media shall be referred to the public information officer,” the agreements say.
A number of the troopers declined to comment or couldn’t be reached. The Florida Police Benevolent Association, which represents state troopers, also declined to comment, citing ongoing legal cases.
Two FHP members who agreed to retire under threat of termination had worked for FHP for decades. Cpl. Vinson Parnell, who was assigned to Brooksville, and Sgt. Melvin Bass, who was based in Lakeland, had 34 years and 32 years with the agency, respectively. Parnell submitted his letter of resignation June 8.
“The past 34 years have not only been a great journey but also a dream come true for myself and my family,” he wrote. “I will always remember the experiences of being a state trooper and sharing knowledge which I will be able to carry on in life.”