TALLAHASSEE — A growing controversy over illegal ticket quotas at the Florida Highway Patrol has cost a second high-ranking trooper his job — this time the agency's No. 2 official.
Lt. Col. Mike Thomas, the FHP's deputy director, took early retirement as of Sept. 1 and accepted responsibility for an internal email that encouraged troopers to write at least two tickets an hour, even though quotas are forbidden by law.
"This was a grave error on my behalf," Thomas said in a letter of retirement dated Monday and released Tuesday. "I made this mistake and take responsibility for my actions. This error has negatively impacted the patrol's image, which was never the intent, but I feel it is in the best interest of the patrol that I retire."
Thomas added that he felt it was detrimental to describe "goal setting, or the setting of expectations, as a quota."
What led to the abrupt end of a three-decade career was Thomas' one-paragraph email on May 31 in which he told six high-ranking colleagues "to encourage our members to maintain our 2.0 citations per hour ratio as we attempt to provide a safer driving environment for Floridians."
One recipient of that email was Thomas' boss, Col. Gene Spaulding, director of the patrol.
A spokeswoman for Spaulding, Beth Frady, said she could not comment on why Spaulding didn't act on the email when he received it, and was not sure that Spaulding had seen it.
In a statement Tuesday, Spaulding said of Thomas: "It was inappropriate to request a specific number of citations from our members."
The patrol is still reviewing to see if other administrators gave a similar two-tickets-an-hour edict, raising the possibility that more premature retirements may be on the way.
Thomas grew up in working-class Homestead where he said a state trooper was a personal role model who joked about a "curfew" so that teenagers wouldn't be roaming the streets late at night.
After serving in the Navy, Thomas joined the FHP and patrolled the busy highways of Miami-Dade and Broward counties for many years, recalling one very difficult July when he had to notify relatives of seven people who died in car crashes.
Thomas becomes the second high-ranking FHP official to lose his job and his six-figure salary in two weeks. Thomas was making $131,000 a year.
A veteran FHP major under Thomas' command, Mark Welch, saw his 35-year career abruptly end two weeks ago after the Times/Herald reported that he sent a July 28 email to dozens of troopers in an eight-county region that officers said was a mandate for quotas, which are illegal under state law.
"The patrol wants to see two citations each hour," Welch wrote to troopers who work on an overtime detail known as SOAR, or Statewide Overtime Action Response, a taxpayer-funded initiative to improve highway safety. "This is not a quota; it is what we are asking you to do to support this important initiative."
In a recent Times/Herald interview, Thomas downplayed the significance of Welch's email and called it "more of a want" than a quota.
The goal, Thomas explained, is for troopers to spend less time in their black and tan cruisers and more time talking to drivers. "Stop some people. Talk to them. Educate them," Thomas said.
The Times/Herald obtained two more internal FHP emails in which FHP supervisors in Miami-Dade congratulated troopers for meeting or exceeding goals for traffic stops and as a result were allowed to switch their days off from weekdays to more favorable weekends.
Spaulding said that was not a reward, and that troopers have never been given incentives to write tickets.
Spaulding's boss, Terry Rhodes, executive director of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, reiterated Tuesday: "Quotas are not legal and are not tolerated within the Florida Highway Patrol."
The idea of ticket quotas in Florida has caused an uproar with the motoring public, prompted criticism from key legislators. It also could be detrimental to Florida's image as a haven for tourists. Gov. Rick Scott has said the state is on pace to set an all-time record for out-of-state visitors in 2017.
Asked Tuesday about the sudden retirement, Scott's office provided a two-sentence statement: "FHP personnel decisions are made by FHP. Gov. Scott knows that Director Rhodes and Col. Spaulding are 100 percent dedicated to the safety of Floridians and visitors."
Florida had more than 3,000 traffic fatalities in 2016, the highest number for any year. Yet for the past three years, the number of traffic citations written by state troopers has steadily declined, in large part because of rampant turnover in the ranks that is attributed to a low starting salary.
Scott will ask the Legislature next session to boost the starting salary of a trooper from $38,000 to $42,000 a year.
Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected]tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.