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Former Florida Sheriff Cleared in Theft Investigation and PHS Contract Fraud Suit

Following a two-year investigation and a jury verdict in a civil suit, a special prosecutor announced in June 2011 that criminal charges would not be forthcoming against Bill Balkwill, former sheriff of Sarasota County, Florida.

The jury verdict was entered in a lawsuit filed by Prison Health Services (PHS) that alleged Balkwill had improperly awarded a contract to another company to provide medical care for jail prisoners. The criminal investigation focused on Sheriff’s Office property that was found in Balkwill’s possession months after he retired.

PHS’s lawsuit, filed in circuit court, claimed that Balkwill awarded a $9 million jail medical contract to Armor Correctional Health Services in August 2006 after he received gifts and perks from Armor officials. One of those perks involved a fishing trip on Lake Okeechobee. Armor’s CEO and lobbyist also took Balkwill and his wife to expensive dinners prior to the contract being awarded. [See: PLN, Dec. 2009, p.22; Jan. 2009, p.36; March 2008, p.44].

In an attempt to prove that Balkwill had communicated with Armor executives before awarding the contract, PHS sought to examine his laptop for emails and other evidence.

The Sheriff’s Office began an investigation in April 2009. It found that Balkwill had pressured the department’s former Information Technology Director, Jeff Feathers, to fill out a form claiming the laptop was worth only $10. The form designated the laptop as junk to be recycled.

The laptop, however, was later found during a search of Balkwill’s home; he then “scrubbed” it of certain files before turning it over. He claimed the 11,000 files he deleted were personal photographs and files that contained national security information, though the judge in PHS’s lawsuit held that Balkwill had destroyed the files despite a court order not to tamper with the computer. Former Armor CEO Doyle Moore had also deleted files from his laptop before surrendering it as evidence in the case.

“The destruction of files subject to production and inspection, both by Balkwill and Moore, cannot be excused,” the court wrote. “The deletions were intentional and must be viewed as attempts to thwart discovery.”

PHS had hoped to find communications between Armor’s CEO and Balkwill, his “good friend.” A Florida Department of Law Enforcement forensic review of Balkwill’s laptop revealed nine emails pertaining to the disputed jail medical contract; most of the deleted messages and files could not be recovered.

During the search of Balkwill’s home, investigators also found a leather office chair with an engraved eagle and three pistols. The $650 chair had been purchased with a Sheriff’s Office credit card. Sarasota County prosecutors rejected potential theft charges related to the chair, advising detectives that it “did not rise to the level worthy of criminal prosecution.”

Two of the guns belonged to the Sheriff’s Office prior to Balkwill writing a check to buy them for $200, which was far below their market value. As to the purchase of the guns, Sheriff’s Captain Jeff Bell wrote, “This seemingly skirts the application of criminal laws but certainly gives rise to ethical concerns.”

Detectives believed that Balkwill’s possession of the laptop constituted criminal theft, as the $2,600 computer would normally be replaced after five years but Balkwill had it valued at $10 and slated for recycling before he took it home. Sarasota County prosecutors recused themselves due to a conflict of interest, as they had worked with the former sheriff during his eight years in office.

A special prosecutor, Wayne Chalu, was assigned to the case. In a ten-page memo issued in June 2011, Chalu announced that no charges would be filed because as sheriff, Balkwill had the authority to decide when Sheriff’s Office property should be destroyed. Chalu also determined that Balkwill had a “legitimate concern” that confidential files on his laptop would become public before he could destroy them. Thus, he did not face any criminal prosecution.

Previously, in November 2010, the jury in PHS’s civil lawsuit held that the county and Balkwill had done nothing wrong when awarding the jail medical contract to Armor. The jurors found that the Sheriff’s Office had exercised its “honest discretion in awarding the jail contract to Armor, Balkwill was not improperly or corruptly influenced by Armor in awarding the contract, Balkwill did not act arbitrarily and capriciously in awarding the jail contract and Armor did not use unfair methods of competition or trade.” See: Prison Health Services v. Balkwill, Circuit Court of the 12th Judicial District for Sarasota County (FL), Case No. 2007-CA-10652 NC.

Armor CEO Bruce Teal reportedly cried when the jury ruled against PHS and in Armor’s favor following the hard-fought litigation. Balkwill did not testify during the trial.


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Related legal case

Prison Health Services v. Balkwill