In a streamlining move, Pasco Sheriff Lee Cannon has dissolved the group of detectives who specialize in fighting white-collar crime.
The five-member Economic Crimes Unit, which handled everything from run-of-the-mill con artists' cases to million-dollar scandals involving powerful builders, was disbanded May 15, according to Sheriff's Office spokesman Jon Powers.
One detective resigned. One was transferred to road patrol. The remaining two detectives and their supervisor were absorbed into the criminal investigations bureau, Power said.
"The investigation into so-called economic crimes will continue," Powers said. "We have confidence that we have people who can handle it."
That confidence was not shared by law enforcement experts or County Commissioner Ed Collins, who blasted Cannon's decision Thursday.
"If we have a problem with economic crimes, why don't we have that unit?" he asked. "You're losing expertise."
Cannon objected to Collins' criticisms.
"He's playing politics rather than being a professional," Cannon said.
Law enforcement experts say economic crimes aren't like the usual purse snatching or auto burglary.
Instead, investigating such crimes can take years of tedious work. Detectives must review reams of paper, be sensitive to minute accounting changes and know something about finances.
An average case can produce a stack of documents that weighs six pounds and take two years to investigate.
Worse still, the criminals who commit such crimes are often much more intelligent than the average felon. They have an inside knowledge of finances and go out of their way to hide their tracks.
"You need specialized skills in detecting and pursuing that type of offense," said Charles Intriago, a former U.S. attorney and now publisher of a monthly newsletter on money laundering.
Intriago said the skills are in such short supply that some white-collar crimes aren't prosecuted at the federal and state levels because of a lack of resources.
"The local level cannot turn its back to the pursuit of white collar crime," Intriago said.
But Powers said the Sheriff's Office was doing no such thing. The two detectives and the supervisor who have expertise in the area will still be working on such crimes, he said.
It's just that they will have to handle other investigations like property crimes as well.
"This was a streamlining and reorganization to make more efficient use of manpower," said Powers, who added that other detectives will now get to work on economic crimes.
Both the Pinellas and Hillsborough county sheriff's offices have specialized white-collar crime units. Citrus and Hernando counties have individual detectives who specialize in that area.
Pasco's white-collar detectives handled some of the county's highest profile cases in recent years.
Four years ago, the unit's detectives arrested three owners of a Pasco dance studio on charges they had bilked elderly widows out of more than $1-million.
Just this January, the detectives' investigation led to the arrest of Clyde Hoeldtke Jr. on 23 charges of misapplication of construction funds on houses he had contracted to build in Pasco, Charlotte, Hernando, Citrus and St. Lucie counties.
In between, they investigated a variety of flimflam artists, scams and other petty schemes. In about 75 percent of their investigations, the victims were elderly residents.