Saturday, February 28, 2009

Morris Mystery Questions

The FBI's probable cause affidavit filed in the criminal case against now-deposed sheriff, Charlie Morris, describes a grave and enduring scheme of fraud, theft and money laundering by Okaloosa County law enforcement personnel. But it must be said the scheme also was breath-takingly idiotic.

No surprise, there. Criminals are stupid. That explains why they commit crimes.

Morris allegedly enlisted at least six other county sheriff's office employees in the scheme -- his administrative Teresa Adams, and five others. Some, if not all, appear to have been, themselves, deputy sheriffs.

The larger a conspiracy becomes, of course, the more difficult it is to keep secret. Even criminals know of Mark Twain's admonition that "two can keep a secret -- if one of them is dead."

It seems some of Morris' subordinates may have been a little late in coming to Jesus (or rather, in this case, the FBI). And that raises more questions than the prosecution has yet to answer. Here are four of them.

1. How many sheriff's office employees were involved?

For one, how many employees will the government ultimately claim Sheriff Morris used to launder money? How many of his subordinates received bogus "bonuses" and gave cash kick-backs?

We know of six subordinates, counting the administrative assistant who is now a co-defendant. But did every co-conspirator turn state's evidence or were there more?

Until that question is answered, every employee in the county sheriff's office will fall under the shadow of public suspicion.

2. How long has this been going on?

How long will the government claim Morris' money laundering conspiracy persisted? The "probable cause" affidavit suggests a chronology that reaches back at least to last Fall:
CW-2... provided me with a stack of pay stubs documenting his/her 2008 salary and bonus payments from the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office. CW-2 then noted that approximately six of the stubs had a payment marked "PERFORM" under the "EARNINGS" column and the name of his/her bank under the "DEDUCTIONS" column. When taken together, these denoted the previously-described bonus payments paid into his/her personal checking account (including some legitimate bonuses which did not require a kickback). CW-2 then noted that... his/her salary with the OCSO with the addition of the bonus payments had increased by over $30,000 since the prior year.
The affidavit also asserts "Morris approached" another witness, identified as CW-3, "sometime in September 2008" to ask "if he/she would be willing to accept a $5,000 payment into his/her checking account, then subsequently withdraw the funds and given them back to Terry Adams."

Indeed, September seems to have been an especially needy month for Sheriff Morris. The FBI affidavit details yet another informant, CW-4, who also was approached in that same month:
Specifcally, CW-4 relayed that around the end of September 2008... the Sheriff walked into CW-4's office, shut the door, and informd CW-4 that he/she would actually be receiving a bonus of $11,000, and not $6,000 as previously stated. Morris then informed CW-4 that he/she would need to take $5,000 of that bonus and give it back to Terry Adams so that he (Sheriff Morris) could then give it to charity.
3. Why the urgency and escalating sums in January 2009?

We can safely assume the "charity" excuse Morris is alleged to have given his subordinates was nonsense. Legitimate charities aren't accustomed to raking in bags of cash.

Gratifying as it would be for the people of Okaloosa County, it also seems unlikely that Morris simply squirreled away the cash for a rainy day. He's not likely to show up in court and give it all back with a smile and a shrug.

Moreover, we think the circumstances described in the FBI affidavit strongly suggest that Morris was experiencing some sense of urgency in January 2009. The phony "bonus" money paid to CW-2 suddenly escalated to $15,000. Apparently, however, Morris wasn't used to dealing with dirty money in such denominations.

When he later awoke (or was told by someone else) that a cash transaction of $12,000 would require CW-2 to file a "currency transaction report," instead of the usual tactic some hope to use in hiding the cash transaction by stringing the kickbacks out into smaller payments over a longer period of time, Morris instructed his subordinate to proceed, anyway, but use a cashier's check instead. He wanted the money and he wanted it right then.

Why the urgency? That brings us, inevitably, to the granddaddy question of all.

4. Who ultimately received the loot?

Morris used the money to pay someone for something. That's what money is for. But who was it? And what was it for? As always, we need to follow the money.

Among the common, theoretically possible answers are the money wound up in the hands of a drug dealer, a bookie, a mistress, or a gambling casino. Sadly, perhaps, bookstores and art galleries almost never make the list.

But there is one other possibility we can imagine. It's one that would explain why Okaloosa County sheriff's Major Larry Donaldson cautioned supervisors yesterday, "This will get worse before it gets better."

It also broadly fits with the only two specific kickback months -- September 2008 and January 2009 -- which are mentioned in the FBI's "probable cause" affidavit. And, it would go a long way toward explaining the apparent urgency of the unusually large January kickback.

Can you think of a prominent, powerful Okaloosa County politician who was soliciting money last Fall as he ran for reelection? Someone, perhaps, who unexpectedly needed even more money in January when he resigned his job and learned that he needed a lawyer because he'd soon be appearing before a grand jury?

Someone, say, whom Morris is known to have strongly supported? Someone who was specifically on his mind in January?

The Northwest Daily News in Ft. Walton Beach hints at the answer in its latest editorial. The "mighty," the paper says, "sometimes... fall two at a time."

2-28 pm

A Panama City television station is reporting that Okaloosa County's Chief Deputy Sheriff, Mike Coup, has been placed "on paid administrative leave as a precaution, due to the ongoing federal investigation into the allegations against Morris and Adams."

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