In early August Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre took a family road trip to see his daughter and son-in-law in Virginia, visiting a few colleges along the way with his son. The sheriff took his department-issued 2013 Dodge Charger SXT for the trip, his own vehicle being “down” at the time, he said.
While the car was parked in Charlottesville, Va., a U-Hall truck struck it, causing minor damage to the rear bumper. The driver of the U-Hall left contact information on the Charger’s windshield.
As soon as the vehicle was back in Flagler Manfre turned over the matter to the county government fleet operation, with which the sheriff merged in a cost-saving measure. The fleet department is required to get three quotes before proceeding with a repair job, however minor. It got two—a $340 quote from J&J Auto Body in Bunnell, and a $255 quote from Flagler Collision in Palm Coast. The job, according to Flagler Collision, required about five hours’ labor (body work and paint) plus supplies.
The county contacted Celico Auto in Bunnell to get a third quote but never received it. Celico called the sheriff’s assistant and said Celico Auto would work on the car. The job was done for free, rendering the county’s role “a moot point,” according to Carl Laundrie, a county spokesman.
The Sheriff’s handling of the issue went counter to several department policies, at least as far as those policies apply to the rest of the ranks at the Sheriff’s Office. Aside from taking the vehicle out of county on a personal trip, Manfre didn’t file a damage and incident report, and the repairs were not completed according to county procedures.
Manfre was elected on a platform that stressed ethical propriety, to contrast himself with Don Fleming, the former sheriff, who was prone to making ethical lapses and misjudgments—and whose department-issued vehicle was a colossal gas-guzzling SUV, compared to Manfre’s more economical sedan. (Manfre says he’s put only 13,000 miles on it in 10 months.)
Department policy grants deputies the use of department vehicles, with conditions. The policy does not explicitly forbid the use of the vehicles for personal reasons (except for out-of-county residents who work at the sheriff’s office). In fact, cops will respond to calls at times when off-duty. But it does forbid the vehicles’ use in private, non-police jobs. And the cars may not be taken out of county without permission. Such permission is usually granted for police- or education-related uses.
Manfre concedes that taking the vehicle to Virginia was an error. He said he had a brief window of time to see his son-in-law, who was in from abroad. Since he couldn’t take his own car, he had to choose between taking the Dodge and making the visit happen, or not seeing his family. He chose the former. Nevertheless, “I made a poor choice,” he said. “That won’t happen again.” He also noted that as sheriff, ““I’m on duty 24 hours, seven days a week, so I take the vehicle when I travel.”
On the other issues, however, Manfre said he violated no policies. He said the Charger was struck while parked. Since it was not struck while the car was moving, it did not rank as a crash, so no crash or incident report was necessary once back in Flagler. The policy, he said, “is intended if there’s some sort of moving violation.”
That may be news to deputies, who have filed incident reports involving so much as nicks in their windshields—or scratched paint that they’ve uncovered after having parked their car somewhere. The eight-page policy itself, titled “Agency Vehicle Crashes,” effective since 2011 and now bearing Manfre’s signature, makes no distinctions between moving and non-moving vehicles—and specifies that incidents in parking lots are part of the policy. The policy defines “minor crashes” this way: “Crashes usually described as fender benders and include parking lot crashes, crashes where your vehicle backs into fixed objects like poles or other automobiles, or crashes involving minor scrapes. Generally, a minor crash is one in which there appears to be no possibility of injury and all vehicles involved are drivable.”
That’s in large part a description of the parking-lot collision that scarped the Charger’s bumper (an incident Manfre said was not even a “fender-bender”).
Many of the policy’s requirements are not relevant to this incident since it did not rise to the level of requiring a Crash Review Board or the call to an insurance claims adjuster (which kicks in with damage estimated at more than $1,000). But the policy is explicit about maintenance of “all records of crashes,” and of having purchase orders of repairs completed and forwarded to the financial division, with administrative approval. “Records shall be responsible for forwarding copies of all Flagler County Sheriff’s Office traffic crash and vehicle damage reports to Human Resources and Fleet Maintenance.”
No such reports were generated.
“I’m the head of the agency, I knew what occurred,” Manfre said, noting that the reporting requirements are required and generated through the chain of command so supervisors have a clear idea of what took place and how to respond. Since Manfre is at the top of the chain, “It would have been a little bit of a useless act,” he said.
The sheriff bristled at the suggestion that he was either attempting to hide the fact of the accident—which he said he reported immediately to fleet maintenance—or not abide by the rules. “The reason for that policy is so that upper management knows what’s going on. In this case I knew directly what had happened,” Manfre said. “I believe I abided by the spirit of the policy and the letter in terms of notifying the county that the vehicle needed repair.”
As for Celico doing the job, Manfre said he was out of the loop of the bidding process. “I get a call from Celico to bring the vehicle over. At that point I assumed he’d won the bid,” Manfre said. “I didn’t call Celico up and say, hey fix my car.” (Carlo Celico’s son is a sheriff’s deputy, and his late son Frank was a sergeant at the Sheriff’s Office when he died unexpectedly in 2011). “They sent out the bid, next thing we got the call from Celico, bring the vehicle in.” Manfre said he was not aware that there was no payment. “That was up to him to decide, it’s between him and the county,” the sheriff said, though by then the county was no longer involved.
Celico did nothing wrong: businesses will often offer their services to local agencies. But government agencies have policies and procedures in place to ensure that one business is not favored over another, to prevent so much as the appearance of a government agency accepting favors. In this case, both the county and the sheriff say they were not involved in the decision: the county’s fleet management department’s process was rendered unnecessary once Celico fixed the car, and the sheriff said he assumed the car was fixed within the parameters of the county’s policy.
There was no paperwork along the way, so as far as the sheriff’s office’s records are concerned, the incident may as well never have happened.