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Times editorial

Honorary badges are inappropriate, unwise

It's time for Pasco Sheriff Bob White to recall the toy badges.

White ignored criticism two years ago when the Times reported many of the sheriff's honorary deputies contributed to his 2004 re-election campaign. It's a denunciation being repeated in 2008, but this time it comes from one of White's primary opponents, Robert Sullivan, who retired last year as a sheriff's lieutenant.

About half of the 105 men and women presented with the smaller version of deputy badges have given to White's 2008 campaign. The sheriff said they were recognized for their contributions to the community and ability to pitch in if called upon during an emergency.

Sullivan maintains the program is an affront to working law officers. What is more of an affront is the sheriff's implausible explanation that the program isn't political. Here's a refresher from the 2004 campaign, fund-raising for which kicked off a few months after the sheriff began the honorary deputy program:

• The Sheriff's Office faxed a copy of the honorary deputy invitation and application to Joseph Nuccio, president of Nuccio Heating and Air Conditioning of Tampa, on Aug. 19, 2003. Nuccio and his business each contributed $250 to White's re-election campaign the next day. He signed the application Aug. 25.

• Dade City banking icon Hjalma Johnson contributed $500 to the campaign on Oct. 22, 2003, and signed his honorary deputy application four days later.

• Tampa attorney John Bales signed his application Sept. 23, 2003, a week after his law firm contributed $500.

• Michael Stewart, son of Hooters founder Lynn Stewart, signed his application to be an honorary deputy Sept. 3, 2003. He and his wife each contributed $500 over the next two days.

Not political? Maybe not exclusively, but the overtone was clear. Donate money. Get a badge.

A recipient who hasn't contributed to White's political campaigns is Democratic County Commissioner Michael Cox, one of the leading critics of the sheriff's budget proposal last year. Cox said he received his badge before he decided to run for the commission in 2006 and said he declined the sheriff's request to refrain from using the designation on his campaign literature. That should have been a lesson to White. He has no control over how the honorary deputies behave or make use of their credentials.

The cost of the badge, case and identification card is underwritten by donations from funeral director Tom Dobies. Two years ago, Dobies acknowledged he kept his badge on the dashboard of his car. It was a troublesome admission that again pointed to the core problem — potential misuse of what appears to be authentic credential — even if the sheriff warns recipients the badge is not to be construed as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Witness the New Year's Eve brouhaha in New Port Richey in which honorary deputy Terry Ettel flashed his badge during a confrontation with neighbors and told them the Sheriff's Office was responding. Ettel did not face a charge of impersonating an officer because of conflicting accounts over his exact statement.

However, the incident required deputies to investigate the neighbors' contention Ettel misrepresented himself as an officer and a followup counseling session between a sergeant and Ettel over inappropriate use of the badge. In other words, Ettel's possession of the badge brought a criminal complaint and wasted officers' time.

We will repeat our past advice: White has plenty of officers at his disposal. He doesn't need a philanthropic and politically connected posse supposedly available to lend a hand in disasters.

Collect the badges and don't insult the public's intelligence by rewarding political chums with a deputy's star.

Honorary badges are inappropriate, unwise 04/28/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 5, 2008 2:09pm]
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