The five spent $2,858 on the trip and used the final night to stay at the Beau Rivage casino-hotel in Biloxi.
By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 14, 2002
TAMPA -- The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office bought a new helicopter in September from a company near Dallas, and five employees flew out to retrieve it.
The trip took four days and included a night's stay at the Beau Rivage, a casino-hotel in Biloxi, Miss. Aside from the employee's salaries, the trip cost taxpayers $2,858 in expenses.
When questions surfaced about the propriety of the trip, including allegations about gambling on department time, Sheriff Cal Henderson made an unusual decision.
Instead of ordering a routine investigation by the Internal Affairs department, which investigates allegations about everything from rudeness to deadly shootings, Henderson asked a few top staff members to look into the matter. The sheriff later concluded nothing was amiss.
"Everything looks legitimate," Henderson said.
Maj. Rene "Rocky" Rodriguez, a 24-year veteran and a close ally of Henderson's, was the highest-ranking officer on the trip.
A Tampa native, Rodriguez helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for Henderson's 2000 campaign for sheriff. After the election, Henderson promoted Rodriguez to major.
At the time of the trip, Rodriguez headed up the sheriff's Special Operations Division, which includes the department's aviation unit. It was his decision to make the journey to Texas and to invite four others -- Lt. Johnny D. Hill, Sgt. Claude Roper, Deputy Lester Hathcox, who piloted the helicopter, and mechanic Brian Parsons.
Rodriguez said he went because the helicopter's manufacturer, American Eurocopter, "gave us a ceremony and I represented the Sheriff's Office . . . they wanted a staff officer for the ceremony."
Eric Walden, senior director of sales for American Eurocopter, said the company asks law enforcement agencies to send "people who are authorized to inspect the aircraft and to fly the aircraft."
Rodriguez said Hill and Roper came along because they were instrumental in buying the helicopter, a six-seater costing $1.7-million. The Sheriff's Office has three other aircraft, all of them military surplus.
Henderson said Tuesday that an Internal Affairs investigation wasn't needed after his top staff looked into the trip and the decision to stay at the casino-hotel in Mississippi.
"We looked at the receipts and got the reason from the major on why he stopped there," Henderson said. "It was nothing out of the ordinary except that it was in a gambling place. They had the evening off."
He defended his major.
"He just went to pick up the helicopter," Henderson said. "It was his prerogative. It wasn't against the rules."
Rodriguez and Hill flew to Dallas on a commercial flight on Monday, Sept. 16, one day after the others. The plan, he said, was for the group to leave Texas on Sept. 18.
Records of travel advances show the Sheriff's Office gave the other three employees $254 each for three nights' stay at the Hawthorn Suites in Arlington, Texas. Rodriguez and Hill were given money for a two-night stay at the hotel.
They left Texas a day early. Roper said stormy weather forced an early departure and then hampered their efforts to fly directly to Tampa. Instead, they landed 600 miles away in Biloxi, a trip that under normal circumstances should take about five hours, according to American Eurocopter.
Rodriguez said the idea to stay at the Beau Rivage came from a woman at the airport. He said he did not gamble at the resort.
"Biloxi was the in-between point," Rodriguez said. "We had no plans of staying at Beau Rivage or any other place."
They set out for Tampa the following day. The Sheriff's Office footed the bills for meals and rooms. Time cards show they were paid regular wages.
Rodriguez paid for his $85 room at the Beau Rivage. He said he did not seek reimbursement because he "had lost the receipt from the hotel."
But records show Col. Jose Docobo, his supervisor, refused to sign his expense voucher. There was no explanation.
Earlier this year, Rodriguez was embroiled in a federal investigation after he invested thousands of dollars in a company run by a Tampa businessman with an arrest record. He said he did nothing wrong and no charges were filed.
Henderson has since reassigned Rodriguez to oversee the department's District 3 office, which patrols northwest Hillsborough County. His rank and $104,332 annual salary remained unchanged.
In 2000, the Internal Affairs department investigated Lt. Hill for authorizing a Sheriff's Office helicopter be used to ferry meat to a fundraising barbecue.
He was given a letter of counseling.
- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3383.
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