TAMPA — A University of South Florida vice president who makes $384,280 annually is being investigated on charges he stole a $100 mountain bike.
Dr. Abdul Rao was captured on surveillance video Monday night with a man he says is semi-homeless and does odd jobs for him.
In the video, uploaded on YouTube, the pair approach the loading dock at the Johnnie B. Byrd Alzheimer's Center & Research Institute in a van. They get out and look over some parked bikes.
Rao's companion takes one bike for a very short test ride and rejects it. He settles on another one, and walks it down a ramp.
The minivan drives away.
The bike belonged to a graduate student at the Byrd Institute, Rao later learned.
Rao called his actions a "terrible lapse in judgment," but maintained in an interview with the Times that he was only trying to help a person down on his luck — "just one of those guys who can't get off the poverty bubble," Rao said.
USF police are investigating. The tougher part for Rao is that so is the USF administration.
"This issue for us," university spokesman Michael Hoad said, "is the error in judgment."
Rao has taken leave.
Victor Waiters, 45, said he'll take the fall. He's the handyman Rao said used the bike.
"I was the one who initiated everything," Waiters said Friday after being contacted on his cell phone. "I was the culprit."
Waiters said he needed the bike to go get a replacement ID card. He also needed to get to County Line Road to do some work for another family, he said.
Waiters said he'd been to visit Rao many times at his office and had seen the bikes parked in the loading dock. "I just thought they were nobody's bikes and I could use the bike and bring it back," he said.
Waiters said he called Rao on Monday and told him he needed a bike.
"Initially, I was reluctant," Rao said. "But he is trustworthy and he is an extremely hard-working guy."
So Rao picked up Waiters on Fletcher Avenue and brought him to the campus to get a bike, Waiters said. Waiters said Rao was defiant the whole way: "He was just, 'no, no, no.' "
Rao came to know Waiters through a friend shortly after arriving in Tampa in 2006.
Waiters, who has a Miami address, has been arrested 29 times since 1988, including 2005 convictions for cocaine possession and resisting an officer, Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show.
He said he travels regularly to Tampa to do handyman work for several people.
Rao owns a five-bedroom, 3,930-square-foot home in Cory Lake Isles assessed at $441,738, property records show.
The bike was first reported missing at 11 a.m. Tuesday by Timothy David Boyd, who'd loaned the bike to a friend, according to a police report. The woman parked it on the loading dock the night before only to find it missing the next morning.
On Wednesday morning, Rao said he was in a meeting when police extracted him and asked him about the bike.
Rao said Waiters had called him just moments before, to let him know he was returning the bike, and was just five minutes away. By the time Rao and police walked back to the dock, he said, the bike had been replaced.
Campus police Lt. Meg Ross confirmed it was returned.
"Frankly," Rao said, "I did not know that the bike belonged to anyone. I have passed that place many times and the bikes have been sitting there, stagnant."
He said he stressed to Waiters that he needed to return it when he was done, he said.
Furthermore, Rao maintained, he did not hide. Rao said he was instrumental in getting the dock equipped with cameras.
"It's not that I'm trying to hide my face and neither is he trying to do that," Rao said of the video.
Asked why he didn't simply give Waiters a ride rather than allow him to take a bike, Rao said he is too busy working.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.