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Officer scolded for hotel choice

Hillsborough Sheriff Cal Henderson reprimanded one of his top majors Thursday, saying the high-ranking officer used "poor judgment" when he stayed at a hotel-casino while on a department mission.

Maj. Rocky Rodriguez and four of his subordinates flew to Texas in September to pick up a new Sheriff's Office helicopter.

The five men _ including a pilot who flew the helicopter _ encountered bad weather on the way back from Texas. The pilot was exhausted, Henderson said, and decided to stop at the halfway point in Mississippi.

"Stopping ... due to weather conditions and pilot fatigue was necessary," Henderson said.

What wasn't acceptable, the sheriff said, was Rodriguez allowing everyone to stay at the Beau Rivage casino and hotel in Biloxi.

"Staying at a casino-hotel brought this whole thing on," Henderson said. "Had he stayed at a normal hotel this would not have been a problem."

Henderson said he didn't know whether Rodriguez gambled while at the hotel.

Earlier this week, Rodriguez declined to discuss his activities.

"What I do on my own time is my own business," he said.

Henderson's verbal reprimand is the only discipline Rodriguez will receive; his pay will not be docked, a letter will not go into his personnel file, and he will not lose rank.

Rodriguez has worked at the Sheriff's Office for 24 years and is one of Henderson's top advisers.

Along with the helicopter trip controversy, the 46-year-old major made news last month when it was discovered that the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement were investigating him in a loan sharking probe. Rodriguez had written checks totaling $24,000 as an investment in a flower business owned by a Tampa businessman.

The business turned out to be a Ponzi scheme, and Rodriguez and other investors lost their money. The businessman _ a convicted felon named Ronald Roth _ told federal authorities that Rodriguez was involved in loan sharking.

The investigation of Rodriguez apparently fell apart in May, when a second informer tried to make a payoff of $5,000 to Rodriguez at the Falkenburg Road Sheriff's Office. Rodriguez did not accept the money. Instead, he had 10 of his deputies tail the informer _ who then met with federal agents.

At the time, Rodriguez was in charge of the department's special operations division, which oversees vice, narcotics and major criminal investigations.

Henderson said Thursday that he transferred Rodriguez out of the special operations office to a patrol district in October because of the federal investigation.

Henderson said he didn't want the FBI or the FDLE to be reluctant to work with the Sheriff's Office special operations team on joint investigations.

"It was in (Rodriguez') best interest and mine to move him out of that area," Henderson said.

On Thursday, Henderson also reprimanded Rodriguez for sending five sheriff's employees on the trip to pick up the helicopter.

Rodriguez said he disclosed that he and four other people were going to Texas during an Aug. 20 staff meeting of the special operations division. That discussion was captured in a memo sent to all of the agency's top brass, including the sheriff. Henderson said he did not read the minutes of that meeting "until after the fact."

Records show Rodriguez also did not pay for his room at the Beau Rivage. The Sheriff's Office advanced Rodriguez $169 for a two-night stay in Texas. But he and his fellow officers left a day early, staying instead at the casino-hotel.

Rodriguez gave the Sheriff's agency a receipt from the hotel that showed one charge of $4.59 for a room service tip. The receipt shows a "VIP" by his name. The four other deputies submitted receipts showing a room charge of $86.90 each, and no VIP status.

After the trip, a supervisor refused to sign Rodriguez' travel voucher. He also reprimanded Rodriguez for "poor judgment" and said he should have sought higher approval before going along on the trip.

_ Times staff writer Jeff Testerman and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.