FOX 13 Investigates: Deputies question Pasco Sheriff's gun purchases

- Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco stood before commissioners in a New Port Richey board room, asking them to approve the largest budget in his agency’s history.

He listed some of the new expenses: A half-million dollars for the annual cost of body cameras and storage: A million dollars for new surveillance cameras for the jail. A few hundred thousand dollars for helicopter maintenance. Raises for deputies to keep them from  leaving for better-paying departments.

“We give this presentation to our citizens and they realize this is why we’re being funded at the levels we are, because of the problems we face,” he told commissioners last June, asking for a budget that topped $100 million for the first time. "It costs money. People invest in public safety.”

The annual budget request is one of the few occasions sheriffs in Florida must seek county commission approval for any particular action. Commissioners approved his request - a 25% increase since 2011 - and raised property taxes to accommodate it.

A few weeks later, he spent a quarter of a million dollars for a no-bid purchase of rifles from Adams Arms, a company that employs former Sheriff Bob White, who was Pasco County’s sheriff from 2001 until 2011, a FOX 13 investigation has found.

PSO first purchased 65 rifles from Adams Arms in September 2013, records show.

White’s LinkedIn page lists his start date as a consultant for the Odessa-based company as September 2014; his Facebook page lists a June 1, 2014 start date. He did not respond to requests for an interview.

Since the first order, PSO has purchased 563 Adams Arms rifles. Currently, only 384 members are rifle certified.

Deputies who spoke to FOX 13 were baffled by the rifles purchase. They also questioned a swap of three-year-old Glock pistols that happened a day after the latest Adams Arms order.

“We just purchased the Glock weapons in 2012 for the entire agency,” said one Pasco County deputy who asked not to be named, fearing retribution for raising questions about the purchase. “We are getting rid of those new weapons that should have had another 15 years of service.”

Revelations about the purchase come fresh on the heels of a FOX 13 Investigation that showed Nocco used a similar no-bid process to enter a 5-year, $2 million dollar contract for body cameras and storage. PSO says it researched different brands before purchasing from Taser International.

As with the body cameras, neither the pistol purchase, nor the rifle purchase went out to competitive bid. The Florida Legislature does not specifically require county sheriffs to put purchases out to bid, a process that’s required of almost every other government agency in the state. Without that specific directive, sheriffs are simply required to act in the best interest of the public – and they can decide whether that means using a transparent bid process. 

The lack of a bid process has left some of Nocco’s own deputies wondering what the real costs for the deals were to the agency – and the public. Neither Nocco, nor the three public information officers employed by the Sheriff’s Office, would interview about the purchases – on or off camera.

PSO has described the trade as a “one-to-one” deal. In exchange for the used Glocks, the agency got 770 brand new Sig Sauer P320s – a new model.

Public records and interviews with more than a dozen people familiar with the purchases revealed there was more to the finalized deal.

Emails between sales representatives and PSO employees show that among the guns that became part of the trade were 20 brand new Glock 23s that were on order while the new pistol deal was finalized. The unused Glocks, worth $8,000, became part of the inventory traded in to Sig Sauer.

In addition to 706 Glocks and Night Sights, PSO also gave Sig Sauer approximately 350 weapons confiscated during arrests, and 75 various weapons no longer used by the agency. The agency also paid Sig Sauer $51,000 for new night sights.

Hours after FOX 13 sent a list of questions about the purchases last week, PSO public information officers created a public post on the agency’s Facebook page. "Safety concerns prompt Pasco Sheriff’s Office to update guns,” said the post and a corresponding news release sent to Tampa Bay media outlets. It described the 2015 switch to new Sig Sauer pistols as motivated primarily by safety: Glocks require the user to pull the trigger in order to disassemble it for cleaning; Sigs don’t.

At a “Gun Safety Demo” for the media at the Pasco-Hernando State College firing range the next day, the reasons for the new pistols became less clear, when a captain said they would have gone with brand new Glock weapons, instead, if Glock had matched Sig’s offer.

“Gun Safety Demo”

“Nationally, there are documented cases in which deputies have been shot while cleaning their weapon, specifically the Glock. The Sig Sauer feature keeps that from happening,” says the PSO news release.

Glock is the most common brand of firearm used by law enforcement agencies across the nation. A spokesperson for Glock did not respond to requests for comment regarding PSO’s statements about safety.

The news release and social media post went on to describe that the agency has “always operated in a fiscally sound manner” and that its officials  evaluated a number of different firearms. In the end, Sig Sauer presented an offer Nocco couldn’t refuse: No charge.   

At the demo, James Steffens, PSO’s captain of the special operations division, showed off the sidearms the agency purchased last year and said the choice came down to two favorites.

“We asked Glock and Sig Sauer to come forward with their best offer to us, because both our responsibility to the public to protect and to serve them but also to be fiscally conservative and responsible to them,” Steffens told reporters. “Glock said they'd change out our agency for $80,000 to $200,000."

He said if Glock, the agency’s sidearm brand of more than two decades, had matched the offer, PSO would have gone with Glock 35s. That gun functions in the exact same way as the Glock 23, but has a longer barrel. 

A reporter asked Steffens whether, in the end, the safety feature didn’t actually play a part in the decision, as PSO would have gone with the Glock weapon with the right offer. “That’s a very fair assessment and that would be accurate,” he answered. 

Asked why PSO had ordered brand new Glock 23s in the midst of a transition to a different sidearm, he said, “Because at the end of the day, we didn’t know if the deal would go through. So, we still had to plan for the fact that we needed to arm our deputies.”

Asked why the agency needed to order additional Glock 23s in order to arm a department that was down deputies, he said, “We would hope our staffing at the agencies would get to the point where we were doing over-hires.” 

Later, he introduced the rifles deputies have been using for the past few years.       

Adams Arms Rifles

“We have the responsibility to tell you and the public that a former sheriff of ours is an employee of Adams Arms. I don’t know his compensation. I don’t know what he does for them,” Steffens said. “We know that he is there, but we have not engaged with him with the negotiation of any of our rifle program.”

White’s early retirement from PSO in 2011 - a year before he would have completed his third term in office - created an opening for a governor appointment. Gov. Rick Scott appointed Nocco, who was then a newly appointed Major, to the office a few years later. Nocco won his first election the next year.

Over the next few years, White and Nocco both served on the board of Pasco County Sheriff’s Charities, a nonprofit started by White. Nocco and White also both serve on the board of Classical Preparatory School, a Pasco County charter school. (The school was founded by the wife of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who has worked as an attorney for PSO.)

The total number of rifles in PSO's current inventory is nearly double the number of deputies that are assigned on full-time patrol. The Sheriff’s Office also has more than 150 rifles from the federal government’s military surplus program.

PSO is now in the process of returning the military surplus rifles to the federal government. 

Spokesman Eddie Daniels said the agency has distributed the Adams Arms rifles in batches, first to patrol, then to school resource officers and detectives.

The Sheriff’s Office says the training section decided to outfit more deputies with long-guns in 2012. The training unit opted for a piston-driven rifle system, inside of a direct impingement system.

“Gas impingement rifles which, due to the design of the system, are inherently dirty, require a higher level of maintenance in terms of cleaning, and, as a result, are more time consuming to maintain,” PSO said in a statement. “At the time of the evaluation, Adams Arms was positioned in the market as one of the most reliable manufacturers of the piston conversion kits.”

Adams Arms, which manufactures piston systems in nearby Odessa, loaned some rifles to test and evaluate. “Adams Arms provided a quote for the new firearms that met our specifications at less than $1,000.00 each, which was nearly half the price of the competitors,” a statement said. “We evaluated other firearms, but the Adams Arms long guns better fit our needs.” 

PSO’s proximity to Adam Arms’ manufacturing facility, in case of repairs, and “their outstanding reputation” for manufacturing and customer service also played a role in the decision, the agency said.

The Sheriff’s Office  declined to name any other law enforcement agency contacted as a reference for how the brand performs in the line of duty. Adams Arms did not respond to a request for examples of other police departments or sheriff’s departments that outfit their officers with the company’s rifles. 

Reached by phone, Corporal Lenny Longo, who worked at the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office for 32 years before retiring as PSO’s armorer, says command staff made a good decision. "I'm a firm believer that every patrolman should have one,” Longo said, adding that some of the agency’s other rifles were decades old. “We're trying to get ourselves in front of the eightball instead of behind it.”

He says he didn’t know White was affiliated with the company when the department first took inventory of the rifles, but that it doesn’t bother him. "If Bob White works for that company - or Hillary Clinton - what's the difference, if they can give you a good deal on it?" he said.

Others question the agency’s reasons for purchasing Adams Arms brand rifles instead of a gas-operated rifle, which usually sells for less than a piston-driven system.

“Piston-driven weapons benefit over gas-operated weapons if they are used very often and for high volume. These things sit in the back of a trunk,” said one law enforcement source. “Gas-operated rifles would be more than sufficient for this purpose.”

Since PSO’s first purchase of the rifles in 2013, the agency has spent approximately $660,000 with the company.

Pistols  

As a result of the pistol swap, records show, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office order for 770 sidearms became the second-largest agency rollout of the newly designed Sig Sauer P320 weapon in the nation.

Some deputies questioned the necessity of the new pistols. The Gen 4 model that they’d been using is still the newest generation of the Glock 23. While deputies’ pistols were only three years old when they were traded in, the agency had used Glocks for more than two decades. Switching to Sigs would require new training for each deputy on firing from the new pistol, reloading, drawing from the new holster, and using new Night Sights.

“Deputies were perfectly happy with their virtually new mid-size Glock weapons,” one deputy told FOX 13 upon reading PSO’s Facebook post. He said he wasn’t aware that accuracy and safety had been concerns with the Glock.

The letter from Sig Sauer outlining the trade mentions Florida Bullet, a Clearwater-based firearms vendor for ammunition. PSO said Sig Sauer selected the vendor as the firearm distributor to assist in the trade. Tom Falone, the president of Florida Bullet, said his company was asked to get involved so that deputies who wanted to buy back their Glocks could do so.

He said the Sheriff’s Office purchase orders with his company following the pistol deal - $46,000 a few weeks later, then $97,000 a few months after that – were nothing new. Records show the agency spent a total of $22,000 with Florida Bullet in 2013, and $32,000 in 2014. Asked if he believed the increase in sales had anything to do with the company’s assistance in the trade, Falone said, “It’s apples and oranges.”

Daniels said the increase in purchases to Florida Bullet was because “other vendors were experiencing potential backlogs due to a limited supply. We purchase ammunition under state contract pricing, so no matter where the ammunition was purchased, the same amount would have been spent.”

Further Evaluation

Longo says command staff and trainers had talked about changing over their service weapons for a while.  He said he was “pleasantly surprised” when command staff gave trainers the green light to start trying out different makes and models.

"My first reaction was, 'Wow, why now? Why all of a sudden are we talking about getting new guns?'” he said. “They said, 'We just want you guys to have what you consider to be the best equipment.”

After the deal was finalized, five PSO members flew to New Hampshire headquarters for a four-day trip, which included a factory tour and training on the pistols. The Sig Sauer letter indicated the company would pay for a trip for two.

Spokespeople for the sheriff declined to answer why the trip for two became a trip for five.

After initially saying the trip came at “no cost” to the agency, upon further questions from FOX 13, spokesman Eddie Daniels said taxpayers paid for approximately $2,000 of the trip costs. 

He said the trip allowed the five members to “further evaluate” the weapon.

Have a tip? FOX 13 Investigates wants to hear from you. Email us at investigates@wtvt.com. Contact the reporter directly at (813) 870-9758 or email tina.jensen@foxtv.com.

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