A high-ranking Broward sheriff’s official under scrutiny for his association with alleged master conman Scott Rothstein has a friend and patron in high places: Gov. Charlie Crist.
Tom Wheeler, second in command at Broward Sheriff’s office, was a fraternity brother with Crist at Florida State University in the late 1970s. Crist has helped him land at least two state jobs since 2001. During that time, Wheeler’s yearly salary climbed from $47,239 to $166,000 now.
Wheeler, currently the Broward undersheriff, was one of the top local law enforcement officials wooed by Rothstein, a disbarred Fort Lauderdale lawyer accused by federal officials of running a $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme. Wheeler took at least two private jet flights with Rothstein, and has declined to answer the Sun Sentinel’s questions about the trips and his relationship with Rothstein, who is now in federal detention.
Wheeler’s boss, Sheriff Al Lamberti, said earlier this month that he’d investigate, but appears to be backing off that statement. In a recent interview, Lamberti bristled at the suggestion he might be going easy on his subordinate because of Wheeler’s connections to Florida’s governor.
“Nobody is bigger than the agency, not even me,” Lamberti said. “You step over the line, I’m not going to tolerate it.”
Yet the sheriff has been slow to investigate Wheeler, who flew with Rothstein to attend Miami Dolphins and University of Florida football games in 2008.
It was only after the Sun Sentinel showed the sheriff a photograph of Wheeler in a plane with Rothstein that Lamberti said he would look into it.
“Things have been brought to my attention that have required me to initiate a BSO internal affairs investigation, and that investigation is under way,” Lamberti said Jan. 4.
In his interview last week , though, Lamberti acknowledged no investigation has begun, and said he’s not sure there is a need for one.
At issue is whether Wheeler accepted free travel from Rothstein or a Rothstein associate and failed to report it. According to the Florida Commission on Ethics, the Sheriff’s Office lists Wheeler as an employee required to disclose his finances, so he must also report any gifts he has received that are worth more than $100. Wheeler has not reported receiving any gifts.
Lamberti, though, now says the Sheriff’s office may have gone overboard in including Wheeler on the list of employees required to make financial disclosures, and that the gift-reporting requirement may not apply to him.
“Right now, it’s not clear,” the sheriff said, adding that “I think people are being unfair to Tom Wheeler.”
Wheeler, 51, did not respond to a request from the SunSentinel for comment.
The sheriff said he’s known Wheeler himself for some 30 years, and that Crist did not influence his decision to hire him in December 2007. Wheeler listed the governor first among his references, and was hired as the Sheriff’s Office executive director of professional standards at a salary of $158,000 a year.
Before coming to Broward County, Wheeler made $100,000 as an administrator at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, a job he got in December 2006 after working with FDLE on security issues during Crist’s successful gubernatorial campaign and as a security consultant on his inaugural committee.
As he was climbing the ladder in Tallahassee, Crist found jobs for his fellow Pi Kappa Alpha member on at least two occasions.
After January 2001, when Crist was sworn in as Florida’s commissioner of education, Wheeler got a job as educational policy director in South Florida, for the Department of Education. Wheeler, who has a criminology degree from Florida State, lists no experience in education policy on his resume. He started at a salary of $75,000, a significant increase over his previous $47,000-a-year job as an investigator for the Department of Environmental Protection.
Two years later, when Crist was sworn in as Florida’s attorney general, he brought Wheeler along, and gave him the title of “director of law enforcement relations” at the Attorney General’s office and reclassified the position to senior management.
Lamberti, who was appointed Broward sheriff by Crist in September 2007, said he’s had no communication with the governor or his office about Wheeler and his ties to Rothstein.
At the moment, Lamberti said, he has no evidence that Wheeler’s relationship with Rothstein goes beyond the two jet trips or that Rothstein got anything in return, such as legal work from BSO.
If that changes, “then I will commence an investigation” and consider asking an outside agency to conduct it, Lamberti said. “Right now I have full confidence that he can perform his job.”
Though there have been allegations that Wheeler took a golf trip to Ireland last fall that was paid for by Rothstein, Lamberti said he’s confident Wheeler is telling the truth when he says he went on the trip but that Rothstein didn’t pay for it.
A Crist spokesman did not respond to questions about Wheeler.
Lamberti’s right-hand man at BSO, executive officer David Benjamin, also was associated with Rothstein. Lamberti acted swiftly in that case, transferring Lt. Benjamin to a different job and opening an Internal Affairs investigation into his business dealings with Rothstein.
“He clearly stepped over the boundary about what’s permitted by a BSO deputy,” Lamberti said.