Connections seem to help Polk official elude charges in sex sting

LAKELAND — Overseeing the pretrial intervention program of the Polk State Attorney's Office, Arley Smith had the power to decide who violated conditions of the program and went to prison.

Smith got caught on tape giving one of his charges money and telling her that she could pay him back with weekly sex. It would be the "same situation" he'd had with other young women, he confided, unaware that this woman's step­father was a cop who had arranged for her to wear a wire.

With the recording of the sex-for-money deal in hand, the Lakeland police went to the Polk state attorney and said they wanted to continue surveillance of Smith and charge him. An assistant state attorney agreed, saying he saw a clear crime.

But State Attorney Jerry Hill balked, worrying aloud that Smith — a close friend who had worked in his office for more than 20 years — may have been entrapped and could lose his pension. A few days later, the police chief ordered the undercover surveillance stopped.

Even after Smith confessed in the State Attorney's Office, he was allowed to resign with full benefits.

The woman, her stepfather and the Lakeland police were left to wonder why Smith got to walk away.

• • •

Brittney Mong was 18 when she charged $1,936 to her parents' credit card without their permission. Her mother and stepfather, a Lakeland cop, reacted with a nip-it-in-the-bud attitude and pressed charges.

Mong got probation and entered a pretrial intervention program. She began meeting with Arley Smith, who oversaw the program. About a month before her probation ended, Mong told her parents that she had been meeting Smith outside his office and that he had given her more than $1,900 for a down payment on a car and to pay damages for a traffic accident she caused.

Her stepfather, Don Bell, and his wife, Selah, smelled a rat. They followed their daughter to a meeting with Smith at a McDonald's. As they walked out, Smith gave her $40. Her parents say they saw him hug her and rub her back in the parking lot.

On his stepdaughter's behalf, Bell went to the Lakeland police, who wired Mong for her next meeting with Smith. On Aug. 31, 2007, with a camera and recorder in her purse, the 20-year-old met the 64-year-old Smith for lunch at a Lakeland Olive Garden.

Mong begins the conversation by telling Smith she "feels bad" because she hasn't given him a penny of what she owes him.

"You want to work it out in trade?" Smith asks her.

"What kind of trade?"

"You don't have any money. You don't have a car," Smith says. "I'm not big but I know where it goes. Do I need to go further?"

Mong giggles and says no. Smith says he didn't mean to embarrass her. He hasn't, she says, but she doesn't know how they'd "go about it."

He suggests they get together one day a week at a motel. She says she has Fridays off.

"Next Friday, we got a commitment," Smith tells Mong, a slim, 5-foot-9 blond.

Forks clatter. Dishes clank. Tony Bennett sings. Smith talks about Mong's dwindling finances: "$250 for your car payment & money for tampons — those little things add up. & Now we're down to $450. Now we're down to $300."

He subtracts her expenses from her monthly income but tells her not to worry. She can pay him back "in three or four times" with the sex-on-Fridays plan. Think about it, he says, and "make the decision about what you feel comfortable with."

She says she'll leave it to him to decide how he wants the payback to work. He responds: "I'm 100 years old. Young and tender's worth a million dollars to me."

He talks about two other young women who were in the "same situation." One, named Toni, was in the deferred prosecution program, similar to Mong's. He gave Toni money. She met him at his friend's house.

"We got over there," Smith says, "and she started getting undressed and she started freezing up."

The other girl, Kristen, worked for him at an assisted living facility he owned. He helped her financially, and their relationship lasted several years.

"She paid me back on her schedule," he tells Mong.

The taped conversation draws to a close with Smith saying how things must work: "Everything is cut and dried. No ties."

• • •

In early September, Lakeland police Chief Roger Boatner, Deputy Chief Debra Henson and five other officers met with State Attorney Hill and two assistant state attorneys to inform them that they were investigating an administrator in their office.

They played the tape, which required careful listening because of noise in the restaurant. According to police reports and accounts, Hill worried aloud that Smith may have been entrapped and could lose his pension.

Several officers found Hill's concerns odd, but when Assistant State Attorney Mike Cusick said he thought a crime had been committed, they thought charges would be pressed. Everyone at the meeting agreed to continue surveillance and wire Mong for her date with Smith the next Friday.

But on Friday, Sept. 7, with Mong wired and ready to go, Chief Boatner called off the surveillance. Lower-ranking officers took this as a sign that Smith would be protected.

It was widely known among police and courthouse employees that Jerry Hill and Arley Smith were old friends.

"They went back decades to Eagle Lake when Hill was city attorney and Smith was mayor and on the City Council," said Frank Pernas, who recently retired from the Polk State Attorney's Office. "Their friendship grew over the years — probably because Smith was such an efficient, hard-working guy."

A few days after Boatner stopped the surveillance, Hill's office directed police to confront Smith, ending any possibility of more undercover work. In the interview at Hill's office, which was taped, Smith denied telling Mong she could pay him back with sex. He denied talking about Toni and Kristen. But when police told him they had recorded the Olive Garden conversation, he changed his story and confessed to everything.

"I'm a sucker when it comes to the young kids," he said.

Police expected the confession to result in criminal charges against Smith for setting up a sex-for-money prostitution scheme.

Five weeks later, in mid October, Sam Cardinale, executive director of the Polk State Attorney's Office, wrote Hill a letter recommending that Smith be fired immediately and that a different state attorney's office look at the case.

He was not fired. A month went by, and in mid November, Smith, who made $64,278 a year, resigned with his pension.

Hill wrote the governor and requested that another state attorney's office "handle the matter." The governor assigned it to Hillsborough.

On Feb. 15, Bell and other Lakeland police officers met with Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Renee Muratti. The prosecutor asked who stopped the second undercover meeting between Mong and Smith. According to Bell, Sgt. Jeff Birdwell told her that Chief Boatner had stopped the investigation.

The next day, Bell asked the sergeant if the chief had said why he stopped the second meeting between Smith and Mong. Bell said Birdwell told him, "The chief didn't want to undermine Jerry Hill by backdooring him."

Deputy Chief Henson from Lakeland wrote e-mails to Boatner and detectives about the discussion with the Hillsborough prosecutor, saying that Muratti "concluded that without the second 'meet' (between Smith and Mong) they were not able to move forward with any criminal charges. & The second (surveillance) meeting was key to the prosecution in their opinion."

Because of this cancellation, Henson continued, Muratti said that "Mr. Smith's case would not move forward and no further charges would be forthcoming."

The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office says the case is "not officially closed" and employees cannot comment. The key players in Lakeland, including Hill and Boatner, say they can't talk while the case remains open.

Which leaves questions unanswered:

• Why did the police chief order his department to stop the surveillance?

• Why would continuing the undercover investigation of Smith "backdoor" Hill?

With the tape made at the Olive Garden and with Smith's subsequent taped confession, why couldn't he be prosecuted?

Brittney Mong had her own question about the case: "I did something wrong using my parents' credit card and had to face the consequences. Shouldn't Arley Smith have to face the consequences, too?"

Her stepfather Don Bell also had a question: "In Polk County when you see Lady Justice with her blindfold on, is she peeking out to make sure the person in trouble isn't a friend?"

• • •

Reached by phone, Smith said he had no comment.

But Toni Sanchez and Kristen Dees, the two other women he described to Mong, agreed to interviews.

Sanchez said Smith didn't start giving her money until a few weeks after her deferred prosecution program was over, but he still had the authority to help get records of her case expunged. She described him as a "really nice guy — a father figure — who helped with money and advice."

His story about her "freezing up" six years ago was true, she said. When she was 18 and Smith was 58, he took her to his friend's home. She didn't know why they were there until he closed the blinds and lifted her top over her head. But when she stopped him, he backed off. They never had sex, she said, and they're still friends.

"He used to tell me about patting girls at work," said Sanchez, a slim, 5-foot-7 blond. "That's just Arley."

Kristen Dees worked for Smith at a Winter Haven assisted living facility. They had a sexual affair between late 1998 and early 2001. She was 18 when it started, he was 54. "I was young and stupid and not thinking about what was morally right," said Dees, a slim, 5-foot-6 blond.

Besides, she said, she "fell in love" with Smith.

He put her through nursing school and ironed her uniforms. He sent her to Europe for a summer and took her to movies, museums and football games, introducing her to his "more sophisticated" friends.

"Without Arley's help, I'd be a country bumpkin," said Dees.

She said Smith told her about trouble he got into at the courthouse. "There was a girl, 23 — old for Arley — who worked at the courthouse that Arley got involved with," she said. "She made a big stink."

Sandra Hall, who retired a few years ago, worked with Smith. "He loved the young girls," she said. "He'd rub them and pat them and tell them to call him Daddy Arley."

She recalled that when Jerry Hill announced to 75 people that Smith would receive a 20-year service award a few years ago, Hill joked, "Arley Smith, I'm surprised he hasn't had a sexual harassment case against him."

Almost everyone laughed, she said, but now it's not so funny.

Smith was recently named in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint for workplace sexual harassment. The complainant, the details and the case status are confidential.

Dees said that despite all of his "sexual messes," Smith was "so well liked" that most people at the courthouse overlooked them.

"Including Jerry Hill," she said. "When Arley and I were together, they were good friends. They still are."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com.

Connections seem to help Polk official elude charges in sex sting 04/05/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 11, 2008 4:08pm]

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