Inquiry snagged sheriff's official
By JEFF TESTERMAN and TAMARA LUSH
TAMPA -- A high-ranking Hillsborough sheriff's official found himself embroiled in a federal investigation earlier this year after investing thousands of dollars in a company run by a Tampa businessman with an arrest record.
Sheriff's Maj. Rene "Rocky" Rodriguez said he wrote checks totaling $24,000 to Ronald H. Roth, owner of a Central American flower importing company called the Rose Pit, but later came to believe that Roth was running a Ponzi scheme, according to documents obtained Tuesday by the St. Petersburg Times.
Promised quick profits, other investors -- including a sheriff's deputy, a broadcast executive, local doctors and produce company owners, pumped a fortune into the flower import enterprise but got little in return from Roth but checks that bounced, said Norman Cannella, the attorney for Rodriguez.
"Ultimately, he fleeced these people out of $2-million," Cannella said. Roth could not be reached Tuesday.
Facing bad check charges or worse, Cannella said, Roth became an informer for a federal task force investigating public corruption. That task force tried to finger Rodriguez, 45, a 24-year Sheriff's Office veteran who has been mentioned as a possible successor to Sheriff Cal Henderson.
Roth contended that Rodriguez was involved in loansharking, loaning amounts of $4,000 to $15,000 to Roth at rates of 20 percent a week, then strong-arming him to collect, according to sheriff's records.
The federal investigation of Rodriguez apparently fell apart in late May, when a second informer tried to make a payoff of $5,000 to Rodriguez at the Falkenburg Road Sheriff's Office, according to records.
Rodriguez refused to see the informer, Nelson Valdes, who has arrests for firearm and drug violations. Valdes claimed to be a friend of Rodriguez "since he was 7 years old" and wanted to inform him that "Ronnie 'the Flower Man' was making allegations that Rodriguez was loansharking him," records show.
Instead, Rodriguez referred Valdes to a sheriff's detective. Valdes said he had $5,000 for Rodriguez, but later waffled and left without handing over any money.
On Rodriguez's orders, 10 deputies surveilled Valdes, following him to a meeting with five men at a Red Roof Inn on U.S. 301. The five were in two cars whose tags have no record, a sign that the vehicles were being used for undercover work, Cannella said.
Records of the surveillance show the case was then referred to the FBI on May 22. Cannella thinks the probe sparked by Roth ground to an embarrassing halt, resulting in reassignment of FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents involved in the public corruption task force.
"Rocky never loan-sharked or shook down anyone," Cannella said. "He feels bad about this. He's been impugned by the FBI.
"It's a shame when the federal government gets involved in goose chases like this led by a confidence man. It's an affront to every citizen."
Rodriguez, who calls himself a "people person," said he is angry about the "attack on his integrity."
Earlier this month, Rodriguez was transferred from the sheriff's Special Operations Division to oversee the District 3 office, which patrols northwest Hillsborough County. Rodriguez's rank of major and $104,332 annual salary remain unchanged.
Cannella said the move was unrelated to the federal investigation. He said Rodriguez "absolutely" has the confidence of the sheriff.
The task force, meanwhile, deflected questions about Rodriguez and Roth -- or any agency shakeups -- with a terse, 61-word statement.
In the statement, FBI Special Agent Sarah Oates said the two agencies do not comment on individual cases or investigative techniques.
"All legal avenues are utilized to determine the veracity of complaints and allegations received," Oates said. "Investigative results are presented to the appropriate prosecuting authority. Investigations are conducted with no regard to corporate or individual status."
Rick Morera, spokesman for the FDLE, echoed Oates' comments, saying his agency was still "looking at some issues."
Cannella said Roth was "a major-league con man who has been to federal prison in the past for confidence games," but that Rodriguez did not know it and never checked Roth's background.
Rodriguez invested in the Rose Pit without knowing that Roth was held in the Hillsborough County jail as recently as June of 2000, Cannella said. Roth had been detained by local authorities to be sent to Texas to face federal charges of violation of supervised release.
"A number of reputable and upstanding people" wrote checks to Roth to invest, Cannella said. "What reason would (Rodriguez) have to suspect it was a bad deal?"
The Hillsborough County state attorney would not comment on whether it has a pending investigation into Roth's business dealings.
A Tampa native, Rodriguez was a four-year football and track letterman at Tampa Catholic, graduating in 1974. Four years later, he started at the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, making $5.43 an hour.
He rose through the ranks quickly. After a year in patrol, he was promoted to the inspectional services division, then to the detective division.
Between 1988 and 2001, he held the rank of corporal, sergeant, lieutenant and captain. In January 2001, he was promoted to major.
His personnel file is three inches thick, stuffed with commendations from community members, charity groups and two sheriffs.
Rodriguez has been involved with the Boys and Girls Club and the Make a Wish program for several years, and until recently, served as president of the board of the Sarasota/Tampa chapter of Make a Wish Foundation.
Because of his deep roots in the Tampa community, Rodriguez has been invaluable for Sheriff Cal Henderson. Rodriguez helped Henderson raise tens of thousands of dollars during his 2000 political campaign. After the November 2000 election, Henderson promoted Rodriguez to major.
Former federal prosecutor John Fitzgibbons said Tuesday he represented a Tampa businesswoman, Terry Hess, who had been drawn into the federal investigation because she had traveled to Costa Rica with Roth. A federal search warrant was served in April to search Hess' house.
"I'd have to say I'd wager a large sum of money that Mr. Roth was the single source toward getting this search warrant," Fitzgibbons said. "Since it was served, nothing has happened, and I think this investigation is as dead as a doornail."
-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Jeff Testerman and Tamara Lush can be reached at (813) 226-3366.
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