Hampton, Florida (CNN) – How off-the-charts corrupt do you have to be to capture somebody’s attention in the Sunshine State?
You can lay claim to a 1,260-foot stretch of busy highway a mile outside of town and set up one of the nation’s most notorious speed traps. You can use the ticket money to build up a mighty police force — an officer for every 25 people in town — and, residents say, let drugs run rampant while your cops sit out by the highway on lawn chairs, pointing radar guns at everybody who passes by.
Of course, none of those things are illegal. But when you lose track of the money and the mayor gets caught up in an oxy-dealing sting, that’s when the politicians at the state Capitol in Tallahassee take notice.
Now they want this city gone, and the sooner the better.
A state audit of Hampton’s books, released last month, reads like a primer on municipal malfeasance. It found 31 instances in which local rules or state or federal laws were violated in ways large and small.
Somewhere along the way, the place became more than just a speed trap. Some say the ticket money corrupted Hampton, making it the dirtiest little town in Florida.
That’s saying something, because Florida has seen enough civic shenanigans to lead the nation in federal corruption prosecutions and convictions, according to a watchdog organization called Integrity Florida. The group’s 2012 study revealed that more than 1,760 of Florida’s public officials had been convicted of corruption since 1976.
“It’s a mess,” Dan Krassner, the group’s co-founder, said of the situation in Hampton. “Clearly, there has been misuse of public funds and lack of oversight. The cronyism and nepotism is out of control.”
As for the city’s prospects, “They don’t look good.”
‘One heck of a debacle’
There are two reasons for the City of Hampton to exist: to provide water to 477 people and to protect the peace. Some 89 years after it became a city, the audit revealed how badly Hampton botched both jobs.
Nearly half the water the city pumps from the Suwanee River simply vanishes. Leaky pipes are partially to blame, but in some cases, the water goes to buildings without working meters. Some customers may have been getting free water for years.
Hampton’s bigger problems grew out of the city’s duty to “keep the peace.” It led to what everyone calls “the annexation” in the early 1990s.
Somebody got the idea to snap up an easement along both sides of County Road 18 and a 1,260-foot stretch of U.S. 301. Because of the annexation, the bird’s eye view of Hampton resembles a lollipop on a stick. Or, depending on your point of view, a fist with a raised middle finger. Most outsiders take the second view.
Hampton set up its speed trap, just like its neighbors, Waldo and Lawtey. Since Hampton has no schools, homes or businesses along 301, traffic safety really wasn’t the issue. The focus always was on revenue — and state and county officials say that’s where the city went wrong. It’s the crack that allowed corruption to creep in and take hold.
Culture of entitlement
City Hall is locked up tight. Trucks parked out back have been stripped of parts and left to rust. The mail is piling up. There’s no money coming in, so the last three employees have walked off the job.
It’s as if Hampton has already given up.
Tough times can leave people feeling both deprived and, oddly, entitled. Listen closely, and you can hear that culture of entitlement when some folks from Hampton speak. Moore, the jailed mayor, talks about his disability checks as his “salary.”
Smith, the sheriff, believes that folks at City Hall came to treat their government perks in much the same way. He said residents complained to him that police officers and other employees drove city cars home without signing them out. They took them to run personal errands at Walmart. When they filled them up at the BP station, they brought lawnmowers and gas cans from home too and put it all on the city charge card.
‘Why is this even a city?’
The politicians in Florida’s capital, Tallahassee, were gobsmacked by the audit when it was unveiled February 10 at a public hearing. They used words like “crazy,” “outrageous” and “weird” to describe what they heard and struggled to find the right metaphors and points of comparison: Southern Gothic literature, John Grisham novels and Al Capone came to mind.
The city doesn’t pay its bills on time, if it pays them at all, the audit says. It doesn’t balance the checkbook or withhold employee payroll taxes or hold elections when it should. It doesn’t maintain insurance on city vehicles. Record-keeping is hit or miss. The auditors were told that the records they sought were destroyed by an accident or in a flood. The water meter readings? Those were “lost in the swamp.”
This was perhaps the most disturbing bit of news to come out of that hearing: City officials acknowledged that petty cash and money from water customers — the city clerk often demanded payment in cash — were kept together in a bag. When police said he needed cash to buy drugs for “undercover investigations,” it came out of that bag, Smith and Van Zant said.
No records were kept, so nobody had a clue what happened to the money — or the acquired contraband. This much is clear to Smith: No prosecutions resulted.