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Okaloosa Sheriff's Office rebounds from scandal

SHALIMAR — On Feb. 27, 2009, Okaloosa County Sheriff Charlie Morris got up early, put $5,000 in his pocket and stepped out of his hotel room at Caesar's Palace casino in Las Vegas.

He walked into the waiting arms of FBI agents, who arrested him on charges of theft, fraud and money laundering.

Morris' arrest sealed his legacy.

"Nobody's ever going to remember any of the good things he did," said Capt. Tony Wasden.

Morris had been sheriff since 1996. He was nearly universally respected locally and highly enough regarded statewide to have been elected president of the Florida Sheriffs Association for 2009.

His arrest, followed by the arrests of five others in his administration, devastated the agency.

But a year later, from several accounts, the Sheriff's Office is better run and its deputies better equipped than they were during Morris' tenure.

Deputies credit Ed Spooner, the man Gov. Charlie Crist brought in to replace Morris, with holding the agency together.

Spooner, Chief Deputy Larry Ashley and Wasden praise the men and women of the Sheriff's Office, and a public that stood behind them.

When George Collins, the agency's director of homeland security, arrived for work as usual at Shalimar on Feb. 27 last year, he saw people he recognized as federal agents.

"It was kind of surreal, being on the other end of a search warrant," Collins recalled.

Federal agents arrested Sheriff's Office administrative director Teresa Adams and searched for evidence of a bonus kickback scheme.

Morris and Adams both pleaded guilty rather than go to trial. Both are serving federal prison sentences.

When the FBI announced Morris' arrest to the employees, "at first you could have heard a pin drop," Collins said.

Collins said James Stewart, the FBI agent who broke the news, assured the employees that Morris' arrest could not be seen as a reflection on them. Collins said he didn't see it that way.

"We had a pretty good reputation, but then in one short period you felt like that reputation went down the toilet," he said. "You can't help but feel tarnished."

Crist had been notified of Morris' pending arrest, and he told Spooner, then with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, that he'd lead the Sheriff's Office.

"Frankly he couldn't have picked anybody better," Collins said.

Administrators left to clean up after the kickback scandal discovered "a huge mess."

Ashley said the Sheriff's Office, under Spooner's direction, has become fiscally sound. He said there's greater accountability and better accessibility.

Spooner's tenure with the Sheriff's Office was extended from an expected six to eight weeks to until a sheriff is elected in November. He said the Okaloosa County Commission asked for the extension so that he could oversee the 2009-10 budget.

Spooner cut $2 million in spending. That meant no raises and the elimination of some overtime, Spooner said. Twelve jobs were cut and the Sheriff's Office's fleet was reduced by 30 vehicles.

Okaloosa Sheriff's Office rebounds from scandal 03/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 6, 2010 11:18pm]
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