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Under pressure, major retires

Rocky Rodriguez, a gregarious Hillsborough County Sheriff's major accused of everything from loansharking to misuse of his department cell phone, ended a 25-year law enforcement career Thursday by retiring.

Had Rodriguez not retired, Sheriff Cal Henderson said, he would have been fired.

"It's a tough situation," Henderson said during a news conference at the agency's headquarters Thursday. "It's a sad day for me and a sad day for him."

Henderson said he was prepared to discipline Rodriguez for making about $6,000 worth of personal calls on his department-issued cell phone between Sept. 9 and Dec. 31 last year. The calls were to _ and from _ his married girlfriend, the wife of a wealthy Tampa businessman.

Rodriguez also showed poor judgment when he accepted a free room at a Mississippi casino during a business trip to pick up a helicopter the Sheriff's Office had purchased, Henderson said.

"I was in a position where I had to take action," Henderson said.

Rodriguez, 46, will receive his full pension and retirement benefits, said his lawyer, Norman Cannella. It is unclear exactly how much he will receive from the state retirement system, but it is partially based on his salary of $104,000 a year.

Rodriguez grew up in West Tampa, the only child of a real estate agent and a National Airlines executive. He joined the Sheriff's Office as a deputy in 1978, making $5.43 an hour.

He held a number of positions over his career, including vice detective, and in 1982 was nominated for Florida officer of the year.

His forte, however, was fundraising. He was active in several charities, including the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Boys and Girls Club. He was one of the top fundraisers for Henderson's three election campaigns for sheriff.

At one time he was rumored to be a possible successor to Henderson, who is retiring in 2004, but Rodriguez seemed to enjoy being a kingmaker instead of a king.

Henderson rewarded his loyalty, even though Rodriguez had a reputation for hanging around some less-than-savory people.

Between 1988 and 2001, Rodriguez held the ranks of corporal, sergeant, lieutenant and captain. In January 2001, he was promoted to major, and was in charge of special operations.

A year later, he became embroiled in a federal investigation after investing $24,000 in a company run by a Tampa businessman with an arrest record.

Investigators believed the businessman, Ronnie Roth, was running a Ponzi scheme. Roth later became a federal informant and told FBI agents that Rodriguez was involved in loansharking, loaning him money at rates of 20 percent a week, then strong-arming him to collect, according to Sheriff's Office records.

A federal investigation of Rodriguez fell apart in May 2002 when a second informer tried to make a payoff of $5,000 to Rodriguez at the Sheriff's Office building Falkenburg Road, according to records. Rodriguez told the informer to leave his office, then had special operations deputies follow the man.

Afterward, Henderson transferred Rodriguez to a patrol district. At about that time, Rodriguez took the helicopter trip and stayed for free at the casino. When the trip became the subject of newspaper stories, Henderson verbally reprimanded him.

At the time, Rodriguez was involved with Beth Basham, the wife of Robert Basham, a founder of the Outback Steak House chain and a minority owner of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Rodriguez's lawyer said his client and Beth Basham are in love _ which would account for the thousands of phone calls on Rodriguez's department-issued cell phone.

An internal probe over the cell phone bills began in December 2002. Rodriguez offered to pay the bills, but Henderson declined.

Now that Rodriguez is leaving, Henderson said, Rodriguez will reimburse the department for the $6,007 in phone calls. Henderson said Rodriguez did not have "criminal intent" when he made the phone calls, and the investigation is now closed.

The federal investigation may still be ongoing, Henderson said, although he believes Rodriguez is a victim and not a perpetrator in that case.

Henderson said he still considers Rodriguez a friend.

"He was an outstanding employee and he did some great investigations," Henderson said. "He's made some mistakes and he's paid dearly with his career."

Rodriguez is scheduled to turn his equipment in to the agency today. His retirement is effective May 2, and he will take vacation time until then.

His would not comment Thursday, speaking only through his lawyer.

"I'm sure he's not exhilarated of the events of the past couple of months," Cannella said. "But in another sense, he's quite relieved that he's retiring."

The resignation

Sheriff's Maj. Rocky Rodriguez gave his resignation letter to Sheriff Cal Henderson this week. Here's what it said: It has been my honor and privilege to have served in the capacity of a deputy sheriff with this office. I'll never forget the employees with whom I have worked; the women and men who wear the green and white uniform have a supreme work ethic.

For the public, I want to thank those of you that I have called upon for non-profit organizations and charities. You have never told me no and I'll never forget your generosity.

I also want to thank the residents of Tampa and Hillsborough County for allowing me to serve them in my years with the Sheriff's Office. I will never forget my career with this office however my personal life remains personal.

In closing, this letter is to inform you that, as of 2 May 2003, I will be retiring from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.


Rocky Rodriguez, Major