Charlie Wells, the powerful Manatee County sheriff who retired last year with more than a year left on his term, accrued a net worth of $8-million while in office and inspired fear in those who dared to question him. During the politically connected sheriff's 23-year tenure, many questions were raised about his personal financial gains on the job, the way his office's finances were handled, and the lawless behavior of some of his deputies. But a yearslong investigation by the Justice Department was suspiciously dropped in the years after George Bush was elected president.
Could it be that Wells' political connections — he had been on former Gov. Jeb Bush's transition team and other advisory panels — helped quash the investigation? Wells denies any wrongdoing, but the allegations are certainly worth a closer look by Congress.
An investigation by St. Petersburg Times Senior Correspondent Susan Taylor Martin uncovered a disturbing pattern of loose ethics that dotted Wells' career, particularly involving questions that he allowed his private business interests to overlap his public duties.
Some of these allegations involve Wells' wife, Leslie Wells, a real estate developer, who was involved in an advantageous deal after she formed a real estate corporation with friends. The company purchased 1,000 acres in a rural part of the county and asked the county's planning staff for permission to build 301 upscale homes. Planners turned down the development request as being incompatible with the surrounding land use and contributing to urban sprawl. But the County Commission approved it 4-3. At least one vocal opponent to the plan said she received a personal call from Charlie Wells, strongly suggesting she stop maligning his wife. By the time Wells left office, he disclosed that his interest in the development was worth more than $3-million.
Under Wells, the Mantatee County Sheriff's Office was the subject of a sweeping federal investigation into an elite group of deputies known as the Delta Squad. In the process of discovering that a group of Delta Squad members planted evidence and lied on search warrants, among other crimes, the lead federal prosecutor heard allegations involving Wells himself.
Initially, when Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Del Fuoco turned his gaze to Wells there were no roadblocks. But that changed after the Republican takeover in Washington. Soon thereafter, Del Fuoco's investigation was stymied by higher-ups.
There have been serious allegations that the Justice Department under President Bush has been politicized and that partisan affiliations influence how the law is administered. What happened to the Wells investigation has the markings of Republican officials protecting one of their own.
According to a sworn statement by now-retired FDLE Agent Mark Flint, after Del Fuoco and another prosecutor were taken off the Wells investigation, Flint was told in a meeting with the U.S. Attorney's Office in 2003 that because Wells "swings a big bat" no more investigations would target him.
That meant a host of queries would not be pursued, including evidence that Wells illegally borrowed $8.5-million from out-of-state banks for a series of office-related lease-purchase contracts; allegations of improper accounting of the sheriff's cattle operations (which were an attempt to save money on jail food costs); and a very disturbing report that a Manatee sheriff's employee had run the tag numbers of Del Fuoco's car to get his home address.
For three days during a time when Del Fuoco was still investigating Wells, a black car with tinted windows was parked near Del Fuoco and his wife's home. The driver identified himself as a private investigator.
Despite repeated requests to his boss, U.S. Attorney Paul Perez, who had made a courtesy visit to Wells soon after his appointment in 2002, Del Fuoco was denied protection for himself and his family.
Out of fear and frustration, Del Fuoco filed a lawsuit against Wells and others in the Sheriff's Office for illegally accessing law enforcement data banks to "harm, injure and harass" him. Wells countered that Del Fuoco tried to extort $500,000 from him. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, and all sides later dropped all claims. But the misguided effort helped to derail Del Fuoco's career and he eventually resigned.
The judiciary committees of the House and Senate are both currently investigating the way the Bush Justice Department manipulated the law to protect political supporters and go after opponents. The premature shut-down of the Wells investigation seems to fit this mold and merits congressional attention.
From the swirl of allegations, Wells appears to be one of those Southern sheriffs who is politically untouchable despite a record of questionable conduct. In testimony before a federal grand jury, R.B. "Chips" Shore, Manatee's clerk of court, said that everyone is "scared to death" of Wells and anyone who has "started looking at him always quits."
Wells' alleged dealings are still deserving of law enforcement attention, but we will likely have to wait for a new administration for that.