FHSAA investigator's style, motives raise questions — and hackles

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Sat. April 14, 2012 | Joey Knight | Email

FHSAA investigator's style, motives raise questions — and hackles

TAMPA — The scenario has played out on front porches from Seffner to South Lakeland, Manatee County to Miami: A rap on a door. A leery eyeball in a peephole. An ensuing rush of curiosity, annoyance, perhaps fear.

Who is this middle-aged guy? Repo man? Religious proselytizer? Cop? Criminal?

As the doorknob twists, so do the wild theories. Troy Pumphrey, Florida High School Athletic Association investigator, isn’t here to arrest you.

But he just might bust you. He has arrived at your doorstep, badge and business card in hand, in a quest for facts or perhaps a falsified address. Your kid, a high school athlete, has transferred schools. This is the address you’ve listed — or maybe not — on your paperwork.

Is it legit? Are you really living here or living a lie? Pumphrey’s job is to find out. Nothing more, nothing less, he insists.

“He just happens to be the best investigator we’ve got,” FHSAA executive director Roger Dearing said.

The subjects of some of his probes would debate that. Depending on which side of the investigation you’re standing, this 49-year-old retired detective from Washington, D.C., is meticulous, methodical and ethical, or steeped in abrasiveness, arrogance and an agenda.

“I was just absolutely floored by the unprofessionalism,” said Kelly Phillips, whose son was one of two Lakeland High School football players determined to have played for the school in 2010 with a falsified address.

“I’ve never been treated like that by someone representing a large organization.”

These days, Pumphrey is putting the finishing touches on a five-month probe into Armwood High’s nationally-heralded football program.

It’s one investigation he won’t discuss during a 40-minute interview in his tiny office at Hillsborough High, where he works by day.

At issue is whether some players from the Hawks’ 2011 undefeated Class 6A state championship team made a “full and complete move” into Armwood’s geographic zone as required by FHSAA bylaws.

If illegitimate addresses are uncovered, Armwood could meet the same fate as Lakeland, which had to forfeit its entire 2010 season and pay several thousand dollars in fines. Dearing said this week that Pumphrey’s investigation is “95 percent complete.”

Some suggest it has long since been completed, with the Hawks’ guilt predetermined.

“I did sense a bit of arrogance,” said Ken Baines, dad of linebacker Keionne Baines, who moved with his son into a relative’s home in

Armwood’s district two winters ago after Ken says he was legally forced out of their Riverview residence.

“It’s like (Pumphrey) already had his I’s dotted and T’s crossed before he went in there. He just wanted to hear what you had to say,” he said.

Nonsense, Pumphrey’s boss says.

“I don’t think Troy does anything immoral, illegal or unethical,” Dearing said. “Troy is a trained police officer. He has the highest level of integrity, but he’ll strain himself to get the truth.”

A natural investigator

A married father of three grown kids and a grandfather, Troy Jerome Pumphrey insists he has no dog in the Armwood-FHSAA fight. Yet many question how an employee at Hillsborough High, in the same football district as the rival Hawks, can be assigned this case.

“I don’t call (the FHSAA) and say, ‘I’d like to go to Armwood,’ or ‘I’d like to go to Plant,’ or ‘I’d like to go wherever,’ ” said Pumphrey, technically a teacher’s assistant at Hillsborough who spends most of his time as an intervention specialist and counselor.

“They call me and they say, ‘We need you to go look into something for us,’ and that’s what I do.”

Dearing corroborates, saying Pumphrey’s diligence, cop-trained eye and comprehensive reports make him a natural for cases where major violations possibly lurk.

“On the other side, we’ve had some people who have called us and asked that, because he’s from Hillsborough County, will he try to cover things up?” Dearing said. “He’s just in a no-win situation.”

Beats the near-death ones. Pumphrey was working undercover for the Metropolitan Police Department, posing as a narcotics dealer at an abandoned gas station, when he was shot five times the night of Dec. 16, 1987. A shot at his partner was blunted by a bulletproof vest.

According to the Washington Post, which extensively covered the shootings and ensuing trial, bullets tore through Pumphrey’s arm, elbow, chest and just below his navel, tearing a major artery and shattering a thigh bone. Three cousins ultimately were convicted of the shootings.

When pressed, Pumphrey said he was hospitalized two months amid questions whether he’d ever walk again. Hanging on a wall in his office is a framed certificate from the U.S. Department of Justice, honoring him in part for “meritorious service.”

“I was shot doing my job,” said Pumphrey, who betrays no noticeable side effects from the shooting. “And, you know, what more can you say? It’s no more or less than being in the military, representing your country and getting hurt.”

He says he spent roughly two decades with the MPD before retiring to Florida. He was hired as a criminal justice teacher at Wharton High in August 2005, spending two years as Wildcats girls basketball coach.

"I had no issues with him when he coached for me," said Hillsborough County athletic director Lanness Robinson, Wharton's AD for parts of Pumphrey's two seasons.

Pumphrey hooked up with the FHSAA about a year later after applying for an investigator’s position. Dr. Peggy Jones, FHSAA associate executive director for administrative services, said Pumphrey technically is an independent consultant with a contract, earning $250 a day.

“I would say we use six (investigators) regularly,” Dearing said, “and I’d say we use Troy more than any other investigator because he’s so thorough.”

In several high-profile cases, controversy has accompanied comprehensiveness.

Too overzealous?

Phillips, father of the Lakeland player, said his son’s transfer from Jenkins High in south Lakeland was prompted by some verbally abusive behavior by Jenkins’ football coach and the crumbling of his marriage. His wife, he said, moved into a house in Lakeland’s district.

Phillips, a financial planner, said when his wife complained of Pumphrey’s over-the-phone abrasiveness, he agreed to meet Pumphrey himself. Pumphrey doesn’t recall the meeting, in which Phillips said he arrived at Phillips’ office in flip-flops, shorts and a T-shirt.

“That’s possible,” Pumphrey said with a chuckle. “There’s no protocol on how to dress.”

Two minutes into their conversation, Phillips said Pumphrey told him:

If you don’t tell me what I want to hear, our conversation’s over. And if you don’t tell me what I want to hear, I’ll make sure your son doesn’t play football anywhere in the state of Florida.

“I’m sorry, I don’t remember who he is,” Pumphrey said.

“But I can tell you that I have advised people before that, based on our rules and regulations, if they choose not to cooperate, then there is a chance that their son or daughter could be ruled ineligible indefinitely until such time as they did cooperate, based on a number of forms that both the athlete and parent would have signed prior to being eligible to participate in sports at our member schools.”

The Lakeland case also spawned a bribery allegation from Lee Brunson, the parent of a Dreadnaughts player ruled ineligible for his senior season.

Dearing and Pumphrey vehemently deny those claims, with Dearing noting the parent had been deceptive more than once to the FHSAA to get his son eligible at Lakeland. Reached by the Times, Brunson said, “I don’t have anything to say about Troy Pumphrey.”

In Miami, where nationally-ranked boys basketball power Dr. Krop had to forfeit its 2010-11 season for using an ineligible player, the single mom of another Lightning player said Pumphrey arrived unannounced one night at the secured high-rise in which she lives with her two boys.

Gina Florio told a local TV station she felt threatened. She said Pumphrey never identified himself and never gave his reason for being there, and wondered aloud how he got past security.

The TV report, however, shows an image of the business card Pumphrey left behind when Florio refused to let him in.

Pumphrey, who is provided with FHSAA business cards and an identification badge, said he showed more than one form of ID to the building’s security officials and was told where to park. He also said he had identified himself to the mother in previous phone calls.

“How can you claim he didn’t identify himself when you have his business card?” Dearing said.

Pumphrey responds to such claims with a tired grin, as if such venomous allegations come with the territory. Soon, he’ll turn in his Armwood report and move on — to another probe, another porch, another parent.

“I don’t argue with anybody,” he said. “I know the FHSAA rules and regulations very well. And I think that when I’m out on the streets trying to figure things out, my goal is to represent the FHSAA as best I can, and I think I do a very good job of that.”

Joey Knight can be reached at jknight@tampabay.com.

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