Osceola sheriff assigns take-home cars to civilian employees for daily commute

Sheriff Russell Gibson won't explain why employees need taxpayer-funded cars

By Mike DeForest - Investigative Reporter

KISSIMMEE, Fla. - Two executive assistants who work for the Osceola County sheriff are among several nonsworn, civilian employees of the law enforcement agency who drive taxpayer-funded cars to commute between home and work, a News 6 investigation has found.

The agency's general counsel, assistant general counsel and chief management officer also drive take-home vehicles while charging their fuel purchases to the county, records show.

Although an OCSO spokesman said those civilian employees use their take-home vehicles for work-related purposes, odometer records obtained by News 6 suggest some may be using them primarily for commuting.  

Several of OCSO's civilian vehicle assignments are unique among Central Florida sheriff's agencies, records obtained from other departments confirm.

Osceola County Sheriff Russell Gibson would not grant an interview to News 6 to explain why those civilian employees need take-home vehicles to do their jobs.  An agency spokesman did not respond to numerous questions about the vehicle assignments.

Gibson, who is asking county commissioners to increase his agency’s budget by more than $5 million, recently announced he was delaying the purchase of new vehicles for deputies and would not be seeking extra money for vehicle maintenance and fuel.

Agency issues take-home vehicles to civilian employees

Law enforcement agencies nationwide routinely allow sworn officers to drive their marked patrol vehicles home.  

Besides helping those officers to respond to emergencies faster, take-home vehicles can deter crime in the neighborhoods where they are parked, provide additional officer visibility in the community and serve as a job recruitment tool, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

In addition, most agencies also assign vehicles to civilian employees who must routinely drive from their homes to locations away from their main offices such as substations, maintenance facilities or crime scenes.

News 6 obtained take-home vehicle assignments from all 10 Central Florida sheriff's agencies: Brevard, Flagler, Lake, Marion, Orange, Osceola, Polk, Seminole, Sumter and Volusia counties.

Many of those agencies assign take-home vehicles to their information technology directors, fleet managers, crime scene investigators and civilian public information officers.  A few also provide cars to chaplains, victims' advocates and emergency management coordinators.

OCSO is the only sheriff's agency in Central Florida that assigns take-home vehicles to its executive assistants, fleet records show. 

Although one other agency besides OCSO provides a take-home car to its general counsel, the Osceola County sheriff is unique in assigning a vehicle to the agency’s assistant general counsel, records show.

According to OCSO’s policy governing agency vehicles, nonsworn civilian employees who are assigned vehicles are presumed to have a position that either requires them to be on-call or their job requires them to “report directly in the field” versus to their assigned facility. 

"No employee of the Osceola County Sheriff's Office is issued a take-home vehicle for the sole purpose of just going between their home and workplace," OSCO media relations supervisor Angel Sepulveda told News 6 in an email.

However, records provided by OCSO to News 6 suggest that some employees, including the agency's chief financial officer, may be using their cars for little more than commuting to their office each day.

Chief management officer drives nearly 100-mile round-trip commute

Imtiaz Khan, a certified public accountant appointed by Gibson as OCSO's chief management officer, prepares the agency's budget and financial statements. 

Khan, who is paid $135,000 a year, also advises the administrative staff on matters involving financial operations, risk management and human resources, according to the agency’s website.

In March 2017, records show Gibson issued Khan a brand-new 2016 Ford Taurus the agency had purchased weeks earlier for $22,343.

Khan’s vehicle is driven an average of 25,334 miles annually, Sheriff’s Office records show.  

That figure is nearly double the national driving average of 13,476 miles per year, according Federal Highway Administration statistics.

In the first 15 months the Taurus was assigned to Khan, fleet records indicate it traveled about 33,100 miles with nearly $2,800 in fuel charged to the county.

"Employees are issued take-home vehicles when their duties and responsibilities require them to travel outside of their assigned office," Sepulveda said.

But records provided by OSCO raise questions about how Khan could be using his car for work-related purposes other than his daily commute.

Khan, a Brevard County resident, travels 49 miles each way between his home in Rockledge and OCSO headquarters on U.S. 192 in Kissimmee.

If Khan drives his take-home car to work Monday through Friday, he would log approximately 490 miles each week commuting.

According to odometer records provided by OCSO, Khan's Taurus has been driven an average of 487 miles per week, nearly the same mileage as Khan's weekly round-trip commute. That calculation includes days the vehicle may not have been driven, such as vacations and holidays.

Seeking answers as to how Khan could be using his vehicle for both commuting and work-related travel based on those odometer records, News 6 requested an on-camera interview with Gibson.

"The sheriff will not be available for an interview, but we would gladly answer any questions regarding this request if you would like to email them to us," Sepulveda said in response to News 6's request.

Sepulveda abruptly resigned from the Sheriff's Office without explanation the following day after the interview request. News 6 emailed a list of questions to Sepulveda's former supervisor, Maj. Jacob Ruiz.

Ruiz did not respond to most of News 6's inquiries, including why Khan's job required him to have a take-home vehicle, what locations Khan traveled in the county-owned car, and whether he did, in fact, use it to commute five days a week.

Ruiz also did not respond to additional requests by email and phone from News 6 seeking an interview with the sheriff.

Sheriff's agencies in Brevard, Marion and Lake counties also assign take-home cars to their chief financial officers or finance directors.

Unlike OCSO, representatives with those agencies quickly responded to emails from News 6 inquiring why cars are assigned to specific civilian personnel.

"(Our chief financial officer) is required to attend county commission meetings and individual briefings with each county commissioner on a monthly or weekly basis," said Douglas Waller, chief deputy of the Brevard County Sheriff's Office.  "He also attends various budget and operational meetings with the county manager, county attorney, and county budget director."

According to Waller, CFO Greg Pelham also travels to several other cities throughout the 1,557 square-mile county where the agency provides law enforcement or dispatch services. Pelham also visits the agency's 10 facilities as part of his work overseeing the information technology unit.

Jeremiah Powell, the fiscal director of Marion County Sheriff's Office, also travels extensively, according to an agency spokesperson.

"In our chain of command, the Human Resources, IT, Purchasing and Training divisions fall under his direction," said public information officer Lauren Lettelier.  "These assignments frequently require him to have the ability to respond outside of the office."

Unlike the Brevard County Sheriff's Office, which did not offer a take-home car to its CFO as part of his compensation package, the Marion County Sheriff's Office acknowledged the vehicle was part of the finance director's employment offer.

"He is paid considerably less than his counterparts outside of law enforcement," said Lettelier.  "Therefore, the issued vehicle not only assists him with his daily duties but also serves to compensate him for what the job does not pay in salary."

Under OCSO's vehicle policy, the sheriff or a designee must approve the location where a take-home vehicle will be parked and verify the distance is within 25 miles of the Osceola County line.

Ruiz did not respond to questions inquiring how far the agency determined Khan's Brevard County home sits from Osceola County limits.

Although Khan lives 49 miles from his office, News 6 estimated Khan crosses the county line about 18 miles after leaving his home, making him eligible for a take-home vehicle under OCSO policy.

Executive assistants issued take-home vehicles

Gibson has also issued take-home vehicles to two of the agency's executive assistants, Clinton Williams and Jeannette Santiago.

Of the 10 Central Florida sheriff's agencies polled by News 6, only the Osceola County Sheriff's Office issues cars to its executive assistants.  Ruiz did not respond to questions asking whether OCSO was familiar with any other law enforcement agencies that did so.

Like Khan, odometer records suggest Williams’s vehicle may be used primarily for traveling between work and home.

Williams's vehicle, a 2011 Chevy Impala, is only driven an average of 127 miles each week, records provided by OCSO show.

Williams's five-day-a-week round-trip commute from his Kissimmee home is approximately 123 miles, nearly the same average weekly mileage his assigned vehicle has traveled since it was assigned to him.

Santiago's car, also a 2011 Chevy Impala, has logged significantly more miles.

Records provided by OCSO show Santiago's vehicle is driven an average of 331 miles per week, well above the approximately 71-mile weekly round-trip commute from her Kissimmee home.

Ruiz did not respond to questions asking why Santiago and Williams needed take-home vehicles for their jobs as executive assistants or where they travel with those taxpayer-funded cars. 

On nine occasions, Santiago purchased fuel on Saturdays and Sundays when the sheriff’s administrative office is typically closed, fuel account records show. Ruiz did not respond to questions asking whether Santiago conducted county business on those weekends.

The agency spokesman also did not explain why Santiago's vehicle is driven, on average, nearly three times as many miles as her fellow executive assistant even though they hold the same job title. 

Combined, the two executive assistants charged the county approximately $2,500 in fuel during the first 11 months the cars were assigned to them, purchasing records show.

When News 6 asked whether there were any data errors in the fleet records provided by OCSO, Ruiz responded by correcting the date one vehicle was assigned to a particular employee.   The agency spokesman did not note any additional errors with the odometer and fuel purchasing records.

General counsel, assistant drive county-owned cars

OCSO's general counsel, Robert Holborn, is paid $135,000 annually to provide legal advice to the sheriff and his administrative staff.

In addition, the sheriff assigned the attorney a 2016 Ford Taurus the agency purchased for $20,656.

Jose Campa, who earns $75,000 a year reporting to Holborn as the agency's assistant general counsel, has been issued a much older 2011 Chevy Impala.

Ruiz did not respond to multiple emails inquiring why the attorneys need county-owned vehicles and where they travel with them.

OCSO is the only Central Florida sheriff's agency that issues a vehicle to its assistant general counsel, and most do not assign cars to their lead counsel, either.

The exception is the Lake County Sheriff's Office, which promptly responded to an email inquiring about their attorney's need for a county-funded vehicle.

"The car assigned to him is eight years old and was seized from a drug dealer," said Lt. John Herrell, an agency spokesman.

General Counsel David Porter was provided a take-home vehicle as part of his compensation when he was hired, according to the Lake County Sheriff's Office, and he uses it to attend in-service training sessions and community meetings.

Porter also serves as the agency's human resources director and attends HR seminars. 

"He is also on call pretty much 24/7 and therefore may be required to respond to assist and provide guidance with search warrants and other legal matters," said Herrell.  "He's a busy guy and has lots of places to be."

Employees pay mandatory vehicle fees

UPDATE (10/2/18):   After this story was published, OCSO's spokesman informed News 6 that all of the civilian employees mentioned in this report have paid their required vehicle fees.  The agency had previously failed to respond to questions seeking clarification on the payments.

Under IRS rules governing taxable income, all nonsworn OCSO employees must have $3.00 withheld from their paychecks for each day they use an unmarked vehicle to commute round trip from home.

Payroll records confirm Santiago, Williams, Holborn, Campa and Khan paid those fees.  The figures suggest those employees generally use their county-issued cars to commute five days a week other than on holidays and vacation days.

In addition to the $3.00 daily fee, all OCSO employees who drive take-home cars, including deputies, must pay the agency a separate vehicle use fee of $20 per bimonthly paycheck if they live 15-20 miles outside the Osceola county line, policy records show.  

That fee increases to $40 if the employee lives 20-25 miles from the county line, the maximum distance allowed by policy.

Of those employees named in this report, only Khan lives outside of Osceola County, according to the agency.

However, Ruiz told News 6 that the Chief Management Officer does not have to pay that fee because, under the policy, employees are exempt if their rank within the agency is "lieutenant or above".

Ruiz did not immediately respond to an email asking where the Chief Management Officer position falls within the agency's hierarchy.

Gibson recently asked the Osceola County Commission to increase his agency’s budget by more than $5 million to $74,310,830.  The extra funding will help cover the costs of providing additional school resource officers in response to the fatal shooting in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

During a budget meeting in July, Gibson told county commissioners his agency was delaying the purchase of 25 deputy vehicles and would not seek an additional $181,000 for vehicle maintenance and fuel.

“We’re appreciative of working with you all and trying to cut corners and cut this budget wherever we possibly can to be a county player, to be a team player,” Gibson told commissioners. “Anything we can do to help this county save money is what the Sheriff’s Office wants to do.”

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