UPDATE: Commissioner Doug Underhill responded to Panhandle Politico questions after this article was posted. Read his full response tomorrow.
In recent years, the Escambia Sheriff’s Office has increasingly donated law enforcement funds earmarked for crime and drug abuse prevention to local nonprofits whose primary missions are unrelated to those functions.
Law Enforcement Trust Fund (LET) money comes from cash and property seized during policing operations. In response to abuses, Florida legislators passed a law earlier this year that generally requires an arrest before assets may be seized. The new law, however, does not apply to cash seizures.
Law enforcement agencies can use the funds for school resource officer, crime prevention, safe neighborhood, drug abuse education and prevention programs and certain law enforcement equipment, additional expertise and investigation purposes.
But in recent years, the Escambia Sheriff’s Office has donated thousands to community groups whose primary mission is not crime prevention.
They include the Pensacola Opera ($21,000 total since 2009); the Naval Aviation Museum ($39,500); the Veterans Memorial Park ($10,000); Pensacola Little Theater ($10,500); AFCEA Blue Angels Chapter – an IT industry professional association ($45,000); the National Flight Academy ($15,000); and Florida House on Capitol Hill ($10,000).
Florida House is a “state embassy” in Washington DC that “provides cultural, social, educational and economic resources; showcases Florida’s culture and diversity; maintains and operates Florida House, Florida’s embassy in the nation’s capital; and provides opportunities for Florida’s citizens to enrich their appreciation and knowledge of our nation’s government,” the Florida House website notes.
Escambia Commissioners must approve the expenditures, per Florida statute. County officials say the Sheriff’s Office has final authority to decide which organizations meet qualification standards for the money.
“The Board appropriates the funding upon request of the Sheriff for the Sheriff’s use. The Board does not approve each check or each expenditure and to my knowledge never has. It is up to the Sheriff [David Morgan] to certify that these expenditures comply with the statute,” according to Escambia Public Information Officer Joy Tsubooka.
Since 2009, Sheriff’s Office LET donations to community groups have increased more than tenfold from their FY 2000 levels, and included groups whose primary purpose is not anti-drug, youth or sports oriented.
Between 2000 and 2008, annual LET community aid averaged around $22,000 (LET records, 2000-2016, detailed below). From 2000 to 2008, the most donated to community groups in a year was $31,669.27, in 2000.
Former Escambia Sheriff Ron McNesby told Panhandle Politico his primary LET spending focus was on narcotics and investigations activities.
In 2009, Sheriff’s Office LET donations to community groups increased to $51,825.
In 2010 they dropped to $41,710, but rose each year thereafter: $75,551 in 2011; $91,199 in 2012; $139,953 in 2013; $279,842 in 2014; and $292,500 in 2015.
Since 2009, the Escambia Sheriff’s Office has donated about $1.2 million in LET money to community organizations.
Over $300,000 of that was between January and April of this year.
That included $25,000 to AFCEA Blue Angels Chapter. AFCEA is an information technology professional association that “connects innovative people, great ideas and vital solutions to advance global security,” according to their website. Morgan also gave the group $20,000 in LET money last year.
In January, AFCEA co-organized Cyberthon, a Pensacola IT industry promotion event whose sponsors included the Sheriff’s Office and District 2 Escambia Commissioner Doug Underhill.
Cyberthon features computer wargames exercises to help local high school students learn about cyberwarfare. It’s designed to “increase cybersecurity awareness and promote workforce development,” according to a 2015 event press release.
The National Flight Academy, which has received a total of $15,000 in LET funds in recent years, and the Naval Aviation Museum, which has received over $36,000 in LET funds, hosted the event.
Morgan campaigned for Underhill during the 2014 election, to include appearing in a commercial in uniform.
A May 25, 2016 posting on the “Doug Underhill for District 2” Facebook page by “Doug Underhill for District 2” asks people to come out and support Sheriff Morgan in an upcoming debate, adding “we need his ethical leadership to continue AT LEAST until we get this jail debacle solved.”
Neither the Sheriff’s Office nor Underhill responded to emails asking if Underhill directly requested LET funds from the Sheriff for the Cyberthon event, or how the event furthered crime prevention or drug use prevention.
Law enforcement officials say drug-related criminal activity is on the rise in the Escambia area. But according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records, Escambia drug arrests are declining.
In January 2016, Morgan told WUWF the I-10 corridor is the most dangerous highway in the United States, due to drug transactions.
“The thing is that you can literally do a drop-off and move on in a matter of minutes,” Morgan is quoted as saying. “That’s why the drug trade is kind of spiking in Escambia County – because of that.”
Earlier this year, the Escambia and Santa Rosa Sheriff’s Offices, the Pensacola and Gulf Breeze Police Departments; FDLE, and the State Attorney’s Office teamed up to form a federally-funded High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program focused on the Gulf Coast.
Despite those reports of increasing drug activity, Escambia Sheriff’s Office drug arrests have declined in recent years, from 1,701 in 2012 to 567 in 2015, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement annual reports.
The segment of the Sheriff’s Office budget that does not include detention or courts security has increased between $2 and $2.7 million a year since 2013.
Escambia Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Amber Southard did not respond to an email asking the following:
How did LET funds the Sheriff’s Office donated to the following groups further crime prevention or drug abuse prevention?
$1,000 to the Aviation Museum
$1,000 to the Naval Aviation Museum
$2,000 to the Pensacola Opera
$2,500 to the Naval Aviation Museum; $2,500 to the Pensacola Opera; $17,500 to the Naval Aviation Museum; $2,500 to the Pensacola Opera
$2,500 to the Pensacola Opera; $15,000 to the National Flight Academy; $500 to Pensacola Little Theater; $10,000 to Florida House on Capitol Hill; $2,000 to Pensacola Opera
$20,000 to AFCEA Blue Angels Pensacola Chapter; $2,500 to Pensacola Opera; $15,000 to the Naval Aviation Museum
$2,500 to the Naval Aviation Museum; $7,000 to Pensacola Opera; $25,000 to AFCEA Blue Angels Chapter; $5,000 to the Veterans Memorial Park; $10,000 to Pensacola Little Theater
Did Commissioner Underhill personally request LET funds for AFCEA’s 2015 and 2016 Cyberthon events?
The Sheriff told WUWF in January that Escambia criminal drug activity is spiking. Per FDLE, Sheriff’s Office drug arrests have declined each year since 2014 – why fewer arrests?
Law Enforcement Trust Fund Expenditures 2000-2016