Bob White era of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office comes to an end

In January 2000, a 49-year-old sergeant with the state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco named Bob White was about to announce his intention to run for Pasco County sheriff.

This is what he said to the St. Petersburg Times:

"I'm not linked to anyone. I don't want to be king. I just want to serve the community. I want to take politics out of the department.''

Of course, he had been recruited by two of the county's most active politicians who badly wanted to end the career of the incumbent sheriff, Democrat Lee Cannon. Then-state Rep. Mike Fasano and former County Commissioner Ed Collins took the affable but unknown lawman and groomed him carefully. White answered questions with sound bites and quips that one day would become known as his legendary "Bobisms.''

And come November, he won easily. His Republican mentors celebrated.

Today White is unemployed. He quit two years into his third term, saying he wants to spend more time with his granddaughter, who is nearly 2.

The Bob White era, with its ostrich cowboy boots and swagger and Texas twang, ended at 12:01 a.m. when Chris Nocco took his place. Gov. Rick Scott this week appointed the tall, handsome 35-year-old former college football player to be the youngest Pasco sheriff in recent memory.

Just as it was when White burst on the scene 11 years ago, the appointment provided ample reminders that this remains a highly political office, coveted by both parties for its patronage and power.

Nocco enjoyed a meteoric rise within the department and has a sharp political resume: He worked as an aide for then-House Speaker Marco Rubio, now a U.S. senator. His wife, Bridget Gregory Nocco, is a prolific fundraiser for the state Republican Party and a lobbyist for the likes of U.S. Sugar and HCA Healthcare.

White hired Nocco in 2009, bringing him in as a captain. Nocco, who began his career as a police officer in Philadelphia and Fairfax, Va., had become chief of staff for the Florida Highway Patrol. In March, as he prepared his retirement, White gave Nocco the rank of major — moving him into place like a chess piece.

And so began the 2012 election. Nocco will be the incumbent, hoping voters will judge him after a successful year while opponents hammer the appointment by an unpopular governor.

White, who is part of Scott's transition team, is unfazed.

"Chris Nocco is a dynamic young man," White said at his final press conference as sheriff on Wednesday. "In fact, when the governor told me his choice I said to him, 'Chris Nocco is the guy we all wanted to grow up to be.'"

• • •

White insists he is done, but few believe him. That has made him testy at times.

The day after he announced his retirement, White showed up at the Capitol. He said he was in Tallahassee for meetings related to his roles on Scott's transition team and with the Florida Sheriff's Association.

He wasn't angling for any state job, he said. And the governor hadn't asked him, either.

"What part of that little word 'no' don't you people understand?" White said to a reporter.

The rumor mill has had him waiting six months and then taking over some big law enforcement position, an appointment by the governor.

As late as Wednesday, however, White stuck to his story:

"I don't have a crystal ball," he said. "But I will tell you that the reason I am retiring has absolutely nothing to do with Rick Scott. It has nothing to do with a pending position in the governor's office. If I were going to run a law enforcement agency, I would stay right here."

White leaves the Pasco Sheriff's Office much bigger and richer than when he signed on.

When he inherited the agency in 2000, it had a $53 million budget and nearly 900 employees. Today the budget is $85.5 million, with 1,200 employees — plus 350 volunteers.

In his tenure, White closed the New Port Richey jail and expanded the one in Land O'Lakes. The county housed just 500 inmates in 2000. Now it hovers just below 1,400.

Without question, he said, his worst moment on the job was when Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison was shot to death while on duty in Lacoochee on June 1, 2003. Harrison was 56, served with the agency for 31 years and was 15 days from retirement.

It was a stark reminder of the daily dangers deputies face, and White became an aggressive advocate for more resources. He railed against the proliferation of prescription drug abuse and identified escalating crime in some of the original west Pasco neighborhoods that have deteriorated. He joined the conservative chorus over the nation's immigration laws.

"When we let illegal aliens come into this country and spread their stuff," he said at a news conference, gesturing toward a table full of drugs allegedly seized from undocumented suspects, "then shame on us. Shame on everyone involved."

During his tenure, Pasco's economy went from boom to bust as the housing market ground to a halt and property values tanked. Though county commissioners had to cut money and services, White escalated his fight for more deputies. The once easygoing sheriff grew rigid and threatening when fighting with county commissioners over money — even as the commissioners were cutting services and personnel and their treasury sank with the economic collapse.

While he had avoided the kind of scandals that enveloped the three previous sheriffs, his intractable manner during budgeting seemed to hurt him politically.

He had breezed through re-election in 2004 by 63,000 votes. But four years later, he won by just 4,000.

And contrary to the statement he made in 2000 about taking politics out of the department, he made no apologies at the beginning of his third term when he filled key unadvertised jobs with political pals who ran with the state Republican Party hierarchy.

"They're connected to me,'' he said, "and that's what's important.''

As he met for his final news conference last week, White seemed more relaxed and quick to laugh. He reflected briefly on the fights that consumed his final years, and on the criticism he received.

"I certainly wouldn't have said this 10 years ago,'' he said, "but I think it's the fight I'm going to miss the most."

He said he has no hard feelings toward the commissioners.

"They are good people trying to do their best," he said. "The fact that they don't agree with me doesn't make them bad people."

Whatever comes next for Bob White (other than, as he said, the chores his wife, Diane, might have lined up for him), he wants people to know the "immense gratitude that I feel toward the people of this county for allowing me to live the desires of my heart and that is to be a servant."

Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6229.

Legendary Bobisms

> "Don't forget the sunscreen," from White's boating public service announcement.

> "Challenge is the birth canal to victory," said at a recent Special Olympics event.

> "In law enforcement, we call that a clue," a favorite at news conferences.

> "I want you to think of yourselves as the United Nations, and I want you to think of the Sheriff's Office as a developing nation," said to county commissioners. "And if you look at it that way, I think we'll do just fine with money."

> "I'm not the tax man. I'm the policeman."

> "Law enforcement is not a Chia Pet. You don't pour water on it and it grows overnight.''

> "When the bullet leaves that gun, it needs to be righteous."

> When citizens call 911 "something good happens."

> "We are going to the mattresses," said during his fight with county commissioners over the budget.

> "If the people elect me to be their sheriff, then I will serve them with a capital S."

Bob White era of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office comes to an end 04/30/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 30, 2011 5:31am]

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