Wednesday, September 19, 2007

FHP Chief Blames 'Faulty Memory'


By Joe Follick
Ledger Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE Col. Christopher Knight said Tuesday that he resigned from the top post at the Florida Highway Patrol because his faulty memory resulted in an incorrect date on a memo.

"I got the dates wrong because my memory failed me and that's it," Knight said. "I would never do anything that would reflect negatively on the highway patrol."

But Knight's departure has its roots in a sexual discrimination lawsuit filed by Rebecca Tharpe, who was fired by Knight in June 2006.

Knight resigned Monday as director of FHP, a $129,000 position he held since 2001, after an agency investigation found he falsified a memo regarding Tharpe's lawsuit.

Tharpe, who as a major was the highest-ranking woman with the FHP, was the chief of Troop F, which consists of a 10-county area including Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties. Her lawyer, Ryan Barack of Clearwater, said Tuesday that Knight "absolutely" made up a memo in an effort to falsely bolster the case against Tharpe.

"It's clear that Col. Knight wanted to fire Maj. Tharpe in retaliation for her prior activities and because of her gender, and he wanted to paper the file," Barack said.

And a report from FHP's inspectors released Tuesday showed 12 allegations against Knight - ranging from racial discrimination to lying under oath - were investigated in the six-month inquiry that concluded last week.

'Expected retaliation'

More than 40 current and former FHP employees were interviewed during the investigation, which noted that many "stated they expected retaliation from Colonel Knight as a result of cooperating with this investigation."

Only one allegation - that Knight falsified dates on a document related to Tharpe's lawsuit - was "sustained" by the investigation as factual.

In a memo dated Dec. 2, 2003, Knight documented a conversation he had with then-Capt. James Darby Jr.

In the memo, Knight said that during a Nov. 26, 2003, conversation, Darby said Tharpe, his supervisor, was "difficult to work for."

But investigators found Knight's memo was falsified on two key points.

First, the conversation with Darby occurred in late December - weeks after the date on the memo. Darby told investigators he did not agree with Knight's memory of the conversation.

Second, Knight wrote the memo in September 2006 as FHP officials sought documentation related to a sexual discrimination lawsuit filed by Tharpe.

Knight said he filed the memo based on a "pretty good memory," but FHP officials said they did not know he wrote it more than two years after the memo's date.

"I simply wrote a memo at the request of the agency" in response to Tharpe's lawsuit, Knight said Tuesday. "I question the falsification (charge) because the contents of the memo are correct. The dates are incorrect; that's what they charged me with."

Tharpe was fired in June 2006 when Knight wrote a barbed critique claiming she failed to take responsibility for the actions of Trooper Tiffany Ferrell, who had six accidents in her state-owned vehicle within one year.

Knight said then that Tharpe's firing "should have been done long ago" and blamed her for "weak leadership and insubordination," adding that she wanted "promotions or positions that she believes are her inherent right because of her gender."

Tharpe had previously sued FHP in 2003, claiming sexual discrimination. That suit was settled in 2005. Details of that settlement were not available Tuesday. Tharpe sued FHP again in January, saying her termination was retaliation for the previous suit and that she suffered an "ongoing pattern and practice of harassment and discrimination." That case is pending.

troubles begin

Knight said the Ferrell incident, which led to Darby's complaints, and Tharpe's lawsuit were the beginning of his troubles.

"That's when I became a target for that group down there," he said.

Barack said Tharpe, who did not respond to requests for comment, was "not surprised" by Knight's resignation and that "the truth is beginning to come out" regarding her termination.

Darby's lawyer did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Darby was demoted following the investigation of Ferrell's driving and is now a lieutenant on "extended leave" according to the FHP. According to the investigative report, Darby alleged that Knight lied under oath during a hearing regarding Darby's punishment for the Ferrell incident.

That allegation was dismissed by investigators as "unfounded." That's the same conclusion reached on two other allegations from Darby that Knight reassigned him 30 miles from his North Port home in retaliation for battling his demotion, and forced Darby to use family medical leave.

Darby also claimed Knight lied to the media about his knowledge of Ferrell's driving record. Investigators found that to be "not sustained" with "insufficient proof to confirm or refute" the allegation.

Four other allegations were also ruled "unfounded," including claims that Knight made disciplinary and personnel decisions that resulted in "disparate treatment of minorities." Three other allegations found to be "not sustained" include claims that Knight used "derogatory language when referring to African-Americans" and that minorities were denied promotions under his watch.


The investigators said that the racial make-up of FHP employees is consistent with the state's population, but said greater transparency in hiring would reduce future concerns.

Knight said Tuesday that he appreciated the investigators' work and that it was "healthy" for them to review the allegations.

Knight's resignation is the first controversial departure of a high-ranking official under Gov. Charlie Crist.

Knight was named FHP director in 2001 under Gov. Jeb Bush. "He had a long career of public service that seemed to go in the wrong direction at the end," Crist said Tuesday.

David Murrell is president of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union representing FHP employees. He said he was "surprised and dismayed" by Knight's resignation. "He's very popular among the troopers," Murrell said. "It will be a big void there."

Knight's ex-wife said he dreamed of working for the FHP while he was a police officer in Venice. "He's a man with a lot of pride and high integrity," said Betty Curry Knight, a Sarasota realtor. "He was able to go up the ladder and get exactly what he was after."

Ironically, according to a 1985 United Press International story, Knight was called to testify in a state hearing about 10 FHP employees who had falsified documents.

Knight testified that he had refused to improperly fill out mileage and court appearance forms while working in Collier County.

"It was obvious to me what was right and what was wrong," Knight said, according to the UPI story. "And (falsifying records) was very wrong."

Lt. Col. John Czernis, a 30-year veteran, was named FHP's interim director on Tuesday.

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