- Daphne Duret Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Florida Governor Rick Scott has given Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg an additional year to look into allegations that Hendry County Sheriff Steve Whidden and one of his top deputies tried to cover up a convicted felon’s involvement in a hit-and-run crash that injured a teenage girl.
The governor last year assigned Aronberg’s office to look into claims of allegations of “misfeasance, malfeasance, and gross misconduct” against Whidden and Chief Deputy Sheriff Kevin Nelson. An officer in Whidden’s department claimed in a sworn statement in August 2016 that the two thwarted his efforts to investigate Richard Smith, a man the officer believed caused a crash that injured a 15-year-old girl walking to a school bus stop in Labelle on Sept. 11, 2015.
Prosecutors in the Hendry County Circuit asked the governor to give the case to prosecutors in another area because the state attorney for Hendry County has a working relationship with the sheriff and because one of the office’s chief assistant state attorneys is a former law partner of the attorney for the girl’s family, who is suing Smith’s insurance company.
Aronberg’s jurisdiction in the case was set to expire this Friday but he asked for more time to decide whether the case warranted criminal charges, according to Sept. 13 extension order from Scott’s office.
“The Assigned State Attorney has advised the Governor that the duties required by the previous executive assignment have not yet been completed as the case is still pending and under review,” reads the order, which extended Aronberg’s jurisdiction to Sept. 29, 2018.
So far, the only publicly released documents about the cover-up allegations are in the form of an August 2016 sworn statement that Hendry County sheriff’s deputy Vernon Speak gave as part of the girl’s lawsuit.
With a broken passenger-side rear-view mirror from a white Ford F-150 as his only evidence, Speak said that it took him and other officers nearly two weeks to track down Smith by watching for an F-150 traveling near where the incident occurred. They eventually made a traffic stop of Smith, who told them he had been driving in the area at the time of the accident and hit something that broke off his mirror. Smith told Speak he thought he’d hit a mailbox but found nothing when he returned to the area several times.
The deputy said he didn’t believe Smith’s story and began to confront him with the inconsistencies, but by then, Smith had called the sheriff personally on his cell phone. According to Speak’s 2016 sworn statement, Whidden called Speak before the deputy could question Smith further.
In Speak’s sworn statement, he also said the sheriff told Smith he didn’t have to show up for a later interview Speak had scheduled with him and was furious that the deputy kept questioning Smith.
“He was red in the face and angry and told me that I made him look like a [expletive] [expletive],” Speak said of a subsequent meeting with Whidden, according to the sworn statement.
At that meeting, Whidden and Nelson expressed their dismay that Speak had included Whidden’s name and contact with Smith in a report on the case, the sworn statement said. The two are also accused of failing to send the report to prosecutors after they decided to close the case.
Smith was never charged in traffic incident. At the time of the crash, he was just days away from beginning a 41-month federal prison sentence for his role in a scheme where he and three others pleaded guilty to charges they fraudulently claimed they were converting animal fat and vegetable oil into high quality renewable fuel so they could collect millions in bio-diesel tax credits. He is still in prison.
Citing the open investigation, Whidden and officials from his department have declined to comment to The Palm Beach Post about the matter, but Whidden previously publicly denied allegations of any wrongdoing in the case and said the case against Smith was closed because there wasn’t enough evidence against him.