Former beach mayor cleared in police allegations

St Augustine Beach Police Chief Richard Hedges and his Assistant Chief, Daniel Decoursey, are not the only two targets of the litany of accusations lodged by members of the police department, former mayor Frank Charles told Historic City News — although he may be the first to be cleared of any wrongdoing.

Local Historic City News reporters have been following the unfolding drama at St Augustine Beach that led to a special meeting of the City Commission Tuesday. Action was taken during that meeting to place the Chief of Police on paid, administrative leave, to call in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate criminal allegations, and the St Johns County Sheriff was asked to assign a member of his command staff to serve as interim Chief of Police until the results of the investigation are known.

As of today, Southern Region Chief David Messenger is assigned as interim Chief of Police, a special investigative unit of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in Tallahassee is looking into the complaints filed by eleven sworn members of the sixteen-man police department, and Chief Hedges has retained Patrick Canan to represent him throughout the ordeal.

Sergeant Gary J. Hartshorne and Detective Laurie-Ann Lucas were the only two ranking officers to enter into the complaint. Besides Chief Hedges and Assistant Chief Decoursey, Sergeant Joseph Beaudoin and Sergeant Rafael Correa did not sign.

Those others who initialed the 68-page complaint included Officer Daniel Carswell, Officer Frankie Hammonds, Officer Jonathan Helquist, Officer Russell Kelly, Officer Miles Todd Smith, Officer Bruce Wiley, Officer Doug Woodall, Officer Erin McLerran and Officer David Tiller. Officer Eudalio Martinez was the only line officer who did not sign the complaint.

Former Mayor Charles revealed that he was surprised and then angered at the accusations of impropriety when he used various city-owned vehicles assigned to the police department while he held the elected office.

Charles says that he felt vindicated when Diane L. Guillemette, Advocate for the Florida Commission on Ethics within the Office of Attorney General, delivered her four-page recommendation at the conclusion of an investigation into Charles’ activities when he served as mayor.

The complaint against Charles, a local businessman, was made by St Augustine Beach resident Barry Tuttle. It said, in essence, that Charles violated 112.313(6) F.S. by operating City police vehicles for personal use.

During the investigation, the Florida Commission on Ethics found the following to be true:

Charles was an elected St. Augustine Beach City Commissioner from January 2003 to December 2010.

He was also chosen for five of those years to serve as Mayor by his fellow commissioners.

An interview of Charles indicates that he did occasionally drive City police vehicles, but maintains he was performing an official function for either the City or the Police Department when using them.

The Mayor’s office was physically located in the Police Department office and because the Department is small, Police Chief Richard Hedges would ask Charles to assist in the delivery of police vehicles and equipment for maintenance, repairs, and pickup of new vehicles when they were purchased.

Charles’s business did not require him to maintain strict hours and he often agreed to assist the Chief with these types of errands to allow the City’s police officers to remain on patrol.

In addition, Charles did check out a police vehicle on February 13, 2009 after one area of the City had experienced two home invasions during the evening hours. When he arrived at the station, the officer in charge verified with the Chief that Charles had permission to use the vehicle. Charles drove the vehicle for approximately one hour in the area of the home invasions to create a police presence. Had Charles seen anything suspicious, the Chief had instructed him not to take any official action and to report any concerns to him.

Charles also drove a police vehicle to a League of Cities conference, which resulted in a $400 savings to the City.

Chief Hedges said that he has made it clear to the City Staff and City Commission that the Police Department’s vehicles are City property and may be used by personnel outside the Police Department for public purposes, if they are not being used by the Police Department at that time. He advised that the Public Works and Code Enforcement Departments have also used police vehicles with his permission.

Guillemette, the attorney for the Commission, told the members and Charles by letter that there is no probable cause to believe that Charles violated Section 112.313(6), Florida Statutes, by using City police vehicles for personal use.

Charles said that he is not certain, at this point, how he will respond to the false accusations, or any malicious intent in timing the complaint against him to coincide with the complaint against Chief Hedges.

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