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Sheriff defends honorary deputies

He says the program to recognize community involvement has no political overtones, though many he chose were campaign contributors.

Published February 5, 2006

In 2003, Pasco County Sheriff Bob White created an honorary deputy program for two reasons, he says. First, to establish a pool of upstanding citizens to help the Sheriff's Office in case of disaster. Second, to recognize those who have contributed to the community.

"There are no political overtones to it," he said last month.

Campaign records show that about two-thirds of those invited to be honorary deputies - or their families or the businesses they are associated with - gave to White's 2004 campaign. And these contributions total more than 20 percent of the $183,801 he received.

Asked for comment, White sent the Pasco Times a written response:

"If you are suggesting that in exchange for giving to the campaign they became Honorary Deputies that is incorrect. The Honorary Deputy program started well before the 2004 campaign. My first Honorary Deputy was handed out in the spring of 2003. The only recognition Honorary Deputies receive is from me and that is all. The program doesn't cost taxpayers anything and Honorary Deputies get no benefit from tax dollars. They only get one-on-one recognition from me as Sheriff.

"They are free to give to anyone and be a part of any political affiliation they see fit. I stand by my comments earlier that I do not politicize the honorary deputy program. I don't ask potential Honorary Deputies their political affiliation. This program is not about politics, but merely a way of saying thank you for giving back to your community."

A recent list showed 75 honorary deputies. Each receives a badge and identification card. The credentials, which cost about $100 a set, do not carry arrest power or authorization to carry a gun. The honorary deputies will lose their status when White leaves office.

The program is paid for by one of White's biggest campaign contributors, funeral home owner Thomas Dobies. In the 2004 campaign, Dobies contributed $500, the most allowed from one person or entity. Three of Dobies' businesses also donated $500 each. And three of his funeral directors donated $500 each. White even received $500 from Dobies' 23-year-old daughter, who goes to college in New York.

Dobies, who donates to many charitable causes, says he agreed to fund the honorary deputy program because he wants to support the good service White performs as sheriff.

"I just think community involvement is my main goal," Dobies said. "Giving back to the community instead of being in business and taking everything out of the community."

Dobies, who himself is an honorary deputy, says he'll be ready to direct traffic, serve food in a distribution line, or do anything else the sheriff might call on him for in an emergency.

The 103-person list of those who have been invited to join is heavy with attorneys, businessmen and land owners. They include citrus grove owner Ronald Oakley, rancher Jay B. Starkey, and attorney John Bales.

Another is Lynn D. Stewart, who founded Hooters and weathered a high profile three-week trial on federal tax evasion charges in November that ended in a mistrial. The charges were dropped. Stewart gave $500 to White's 2004 campaign. His mother and father, his wife, his two sons and their wives also donated $500 apiece, as did nine different businesses he is associated with.

The honorary deputies also include Pasco County Attorney Robert Sumner and Ted Mounts, who was longtime president of the Pasco Police Athletic League. Neither gave to White's campaign.

White says he met many of those he has invited through charities such as the Sheriff's Office clay shoots and golf tournaments. "It isn't anything that you advertise," he said. "You don't open it up to the general public."

White points out that his predecessors have had similar programs.

Such programs have been around a long time, and plenty of sheriffs around the state have them, says David Dees, director of law enforcement services for the Florida Sheriffs Association.

"When someone receives the key to the city, it does not fit the front door of the courthouse," Dees said. "It's a symbolic gesture."

But the programs are not always without controversy. In Lee County last year, newly elected Sheriff Mike Scott rounded up honorary badges given by previous sheriffs, fearing misuse. He redistributed them after encasing them inside clear acrylic blocks.

In one incident there, a resort owner faced charges of impersonating an officer after allegedly using an honorary badge to escape a traffic ticket. Scott also said that while campaigning against the previous sheriff, he found two people had received honorary deputy status the same day of their campaign contributions.

"I think it's a great concept to recognize people in the community or what have you," Scott said. "But I was a little uncomfortable with what we had here."

Dobies, as he drives around Pasco County, keeps his honorary badge on the dash of his car. "In case I have to be called into action," he said, joking.

In seriousness, he added, "I don't think that anybody that has been presented this position would try to take advantage of the situation."

[Last modified February 5, 2006, 01:22:20]

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