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Panhandle sheriff is felled by kickbacks

SHALIMAR — Sheriff Charlie Morris preached integrity. The word hung in large letters in his headquarters. His peers elected him head of Florida's sheriffs association and gave him a seat on the state board that disciplines law officers who stray.

But it was an act. For years he'd been running an elaborate scheme in Okaloosa County, giving employees bonuses from federal homeland security grants and other sources — and requiring a kickback in return.

He had the department buy him new cars so frequently, it's unlikely they ever lost that just-off-the-lot smell. He put a mistress on the county payroll.

When FBI agents arrested him in February as he partied in Las Vegas, Morris had $30,000 cash in the hotel safe and $5,000 in his pockets. He received at least $114,000 in kickbacks over the last few years while doling out much more than that in illegal bonuses — a figure that's still being tallied. He pleaded guilty last month and faces decades in prison when sentenced July 28.

"It is very bizarre. Here is a man who has seen numerous investigations over his career, he knows that he's not going to get away with this and yet he chooses to do it anyway. I'm disgusted," said interim Sheriff Edward Spooner, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement training director who had known Morris for years.

Morris, a 59-year-old retired Air Force security officer, seemed a perfect fit for the conservative Panhandle County of about 175,000. Sprawling Eglin Air Force Base takes up most of the land and its glittering white beaches are popular with tourists.

He left nearby Hurlburt Air Force Base as a major with 18 years in the military and joined the Fort Walton Beach Police Department for four years before he was elected sheriff in 1996. The job paid him $133,000 a year.

"He instilled professionalism around here, improved training. He had a vision and created a culture of doing things right every time," said Maj. Larry Ashley, a 20-year department veteran who reported the sheriff to the FBI after growing concerned about a car and county-paid gas credit car provided to a woman who'd been hired for an $80,000-a-year no-show job.

Morris and his office manager, Teresa Adams, who was also the department's human resources director and assisted in the scam, face up to 85 years in prison after pleading guilty in May to federal fraud, money laundering and conspiracy charges. Prosecutors say more corruption and scandal within the department will be revealed as state investigators continue their probe of other employees.

Panhandle sheriff is felled by kickbacks 06/13/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 13, 2009 8:45pm]
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