BRADENTON — To Joe Bernhard, the scenario just didn't look right.
Two Manatee County sheriff's deputies drive to South Florida where they are treated to an expensive lunch with a rich entrepreneur. They take his photo for credentials showing he is a "deputized police officer." He later contributes thousands of dollars to Manatee Sheriff Charlie Wells' re-election campaign.
The problem Bernhard had is that he was one of the deputies. The other was Larry Bahnsen, the sheriff's brother- in-law.
"The whole time, I'm thinking this is a setup, we're going to be on TV, and we're going to jail," Bernhard says.
Both deputies were in the sheriff's marine unit. Bahnsen, brother of Wells' wife, Leslie, also does part-time consulting for Innovative Surveillance Technology, a Broward County company that sells surveillance equipment to the Manatee Sheriff's Office and other agencies.
In October 2002, Bahnsen heard from the company's president that a friend, "a very large supporter of law enforcement" named Bernard Klepach, wanted to give the Manatee Sheriff's Office radar for its new boat.
Klepach owns DFASS, which handles duty-free services for airlines and cruise ships. He planned to go to Bradenton to present a check for $4,980 for the radar system. But when he couldn't make it, Bahnsen decided he and Bernhard should go to South Florida.
"It's certainly not showing any appreciation for anything if you just say, 'Hey, drop it in the mail, see ya,' " Bahnsen said in a deposition. "I wanted to express our gratitude and kind of pay homage."
On the way down, Bahnsen "drove and I prayed," Bernhard says. Bahnsen joked that he had so many accidents he was nicknamed "Bondo."
The deputies stopped at Innovative Surveillance Technology and unloaded a box of old bulletproof vests the Sheriff's Office no longer needed. Next, the deputies had lunch with Klepach and Innovative president Lewis Nadel at the Palm, a trendy Miami restaurant. One of the businessmen picked up the tab.
Then Bahnsen took photos of Klepach. "He was saying, this will be for your ID," Bernhard says. "That's why I was so scared — you're going to give us money and in return we're going to give you sheriff's credentials.
"I can think of no lawful purpose for you or me to get credentials from a police agency that you didn't earn."
Sheriff's departments sometimes present "honorary deputy" credentials to civilian friends of law enforcement. But they are clearly marked that they carry no arrest or firearms powers.
In Klepach's case, though, sheriff's records show he was appointed a "deputized police officer." It was not until two years later that the words "no arrest/firearm powers, no oath of office administered" were added, after federal prosecutor Jeffrey Del Fuoco requested a copy of the form as part of a lawsuit against Wells.
Klepach contributed $500 to Wells' re-election campaign, the maximum allowed. An additional $4,500 came from Klepach's DFASS and eight other companies, most of which list Klepach as the sole officer.
State law forbids contributing, "directly or indirectly," in someone else's name. A complaint Del Fuoco filed with the Florida Elections Commission was dismissed as "legally insufficient."
Wells says there was no link between the contributions and the deputy credentials. Klepach's attorney, Isaac Mitrani, says Klepach made the contributions because he was impressed with Manatee deputies he had met.
As for the credentials Klepach received, Mitrani said, "I don't think Benny is riding around holding himself out as a police officer or anything."
The duty-free man
A few months after their visit south, Bernhard said Bahnsen made him a troubling offer.
"He said, 'Hey, it's Christmastime, if you want to get involved with this, I can get you anything you want — cigars, whiskey. Benny (Klepach) has a duty-free company, and he can get it," Bernhard says. "There was no mistaking that what he was talking about wasn't right."
Bahnsen says he never received anything from the duty-free tycoon and doesn't recall making such a statement. Klepach wouldn't do anything improper, his lawyer said, because "he runs a very clean operation."
In recent years, Klepach and Innovative Surveillance Technology, which Bahnsen works for, have figured in controversies involving elected officials.
In Los Angeles, three Klepach companies admitted violating the city charter by each contributing $500 — $1,500 total — to a City Council candidate despite a $500 individual donor limit. And Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa returned a contribution from a Klepach company that operated a store and kiosks at Los Angeles International Airport. At the time, Klepach was trying to win more business at the airport.
In Broward County, Innovative had a part in last year's case in which Sheriff Ken Jenne went to prison on federal tax evasion and mail fraud charges.
Prosecutors said Innovative's president, Nadel, hired off-duty deputies and, at Jenne's direction, paid his secretary, who deposited the money into Jenne's personal account. During the same period, Innovative sold more than $250,000 worth of equipment to the Broward Sheriff's Office.
Back in Manatee County, Bahnsen is retiring in May. Bernhard retired in 2004, after hurting his knee in an on-duty boating accident. Wells suggests Bernhard was malingering; Bernhard thinks his 20-year career was doomed when he started talking to federal authorities.
"I could see it written on the walls that I was being pushed out of there," he says.