Clermont should apologize to former chief after police get no complaints of corruption

Good morning, ladies and germs, and welcome to the second half of our show, "Clermont Corruption Month," starring the city's police officers as the bad guys.

Apologies to Milton Berle for stealing his opening line. But if he were still living, the funny man of the last century surely would have found the antics in Lake County's biggest city amusing.

First, the City Council hires a police chief to clean up an unprofessional department. So the chief fires officers for everything from lying under oath to trumping up fake charges on a suspect. The discredited, dismissed cops begin whining that the chief is "corrupt." The council actually listens, thereby giving the cops unwarranted credibility.

The chief, fed up with the babble, quits. But the bellyaching continues nonstop. Elected namby-pambys continue to listen, and they go so far as to designate January as the month for citizens to bring forward complaints of corruption against the police department. (As if folks couldn't do it any hour of the day or night that they chose.)

Sigh. Most cities designate a month to dispose of old paints and gas cans. Not Clermont.

Now, the 30 days are up.

City Manager Darren Gray said about 20 people came to talk with him and "nothing earth-shattering" came to light. It was just a bunch of sniveling about former Chief Steve Graham's management style and mewling by the same old former officers that internal-affairs investigations went against them.

Wait! No way, Darren! Clermont is bulging with corruption! It is dripping out the seams! It is oozing from under the cracks of the doors at City Hall! Morally putrid officers are using their power every single day for the forces of evil! Just ask — everyone in town knows!

"I haven't received anything at that level at all," Gray said. "Nothing new."

Gray said he and police Chief Chuck Broadway, who took over in December, thought one complaint from a former officer against two current ones might rise to the level of a crime, so they sent it to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for review. FDLE bounced it back, saying nothing illegal had been alleged. So Gray and Broadway have asked the Lake County Sheriff's Office to conduct an internal-affairs investigation.

Also this week, representatives of the International Association of Chiefs of Police started a review of the department and were to begin one-on-one interviews with officers. The cost of this useless exercise, which was approved by council members, is $30,000. Shame on them.

The most easily duped of the elected crew has been Rick VanWagner, who insisted that he knew of corruption allegations and who pushed for a venue for citizens to present these supposed complaints.

At a November meeting, VanWagner said he'd heard "phone numbers, names, the whole nine yards. People are ready to come forward."

Of course, nobody with a valid complaint did so. That's because from the first, this has been a smoke screen devised by those thrown off the police force for misdeeds.

Let it end here and now.

Council members gave these former officers and their supporters credibility by taking their groundless complaints seriously. They have the power to stop this expensive nonsense by rejecting these repetitive gripes in the same way one ignores a 3-year-old who demands ice cream for dinner.

And this should be the last time Clermont asks the Lake sheriff to wash its laundry. Clermont's new chief is perfectly capable of conducting his own internal-affairs investigations. Broadway ought to be given the opportunity to be thoroughly in charge of his own department. If he doesn't get that privilege soon, he, too, will end up being run out of town.

That leaves one loose end, and his name is Steve Graham.

For months on end, council members shamefully allowed former officers and their supporters to repeatedly humiliate the former chief at council meetings by accusing him of committing crimes, without ever having to provide specifics of what he supposedly did.

And despite being actually invited by council members, not a single person brought forward an allegation of corruption against the former chief, who now works for the sheriff.

Now is the time for a complete and open apology. If council members have a shred of honor and a single backbone, they will acknowledge before the public and in writing that they received no complaints of corruption against Graham and that his service to the city was without blemish.

After all, council members are the ones who launched this unguided missile of injustice.

Lritchie@tribune.com. Her blog is online at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/laurenonlake. Lauren invites you to join her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/laurenonlake.

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