Byline: Jim Schoettler
A two-year FBI probe of Nassau County Sheriff Tommy Seagraves and his agency has branched into dual investigations of civil rights violations and corruption, including obstruction of cases, altered police reports and theft, a Times-Union investigation has found.
A key to the investigations is a Nassau narcotics detective turned FBI informant whom authorities asked to secretly tape more than a dozen meetings with Seagraves and others. Brandon Smith, 31, said he did so often with a recorder stuck in a front pants pocket, sometimes sitting only feet from Seagraves.
Smith, speaking publicly for the first time, told the Times-Union he has also given the FBI firsthand accounts, documents and video of what he says are crimes and other wrongdoing by deputies and misconduct by Seagraves and some staff.
Authorities haven't charged anyone and wouldn't say when they expect the investigations to end. Seagraves denies doing anything wrong.
Smith described the most serious allegations as separate attacks on two handcuffed drug suspects by veteran cop William "Monty" Wettstein Jr. The two suspects, and co-defendants in one case, confirmed the incidents for the Times-Union. The St. Johns County Sheriff's Office also documented the accounts in an independent investigation.
Wettstein, 43, declined to comment. Seagraves suspended him with pay this year after one incident. But the sheriff said he reinstated him as sergeant over the narcotics unit after he apologized, passed a fit-for-duty exam and got a written warning to watch his temper. He remains on the job.
Local FBI head Jim Casey said his agency, with Seagraves' cooperation, is investigating potential civil rights violations by police in Nassau. Casey declined to elaborate. He wouldn't acknowledge the existence of the corruption case.
Smith said he turned to the FBI because he had no confidence that Seagraves would act on his concerns. He described the sheriff as a power-hungry leader who played favorites among the employees and hindered investigations to avoid bad publicity for the county and Sheriff's Office.
"I was to that point where I was just like something needs to be done because the sheriff obviously has too much control," said Smith, who quit in September after 10 years on the force.
Seagraves said he has no thirst for power, treats everyone fairly and doesn't shun bad news.
He blames the ongoing scrutiny largely on a political feud that has pitted him against State Attorney Angela Corey for his repeated criticism of chief Nassau prosecutor Wes White. Seagraves said he believes Smith is fueling the overall probe in cahoots with White and FBI agent Byron Thompson. He believes the group dislikes him and his management style.
White and Thompson, the lead investigator, declined to comment. Corey and Casey said none of their investigations are politically driven.
"Allegations that any FBI agent in Jacksonville is conducting an investigation based on anything other than facts is false," Casey said Wednesday.
Seagraves said the tedious FBI probe, combined with the state attorney strife, played into his decision to forgo a third term and retire in January 2013 after 30 years.
"I was hoping to end my career not being shot. Now I'm being shot. It's not being shot by bullets. It's being shot at by the scrutiny of persons saying how they want it to end for me," said Seagraves, 50. "I guarantee you there's a lot more people who have a whole lot of better things to say about Tommy Seagraves."
The sheriff said he has delayed any further investigation of Wettstein to avoid interfering with the FBI. Corey said she also is holding back on investigating any potential wrongdoing at Seagraves' agency for the same reason.
THE FEDERAL CASE
The FBI began investigating in late 2009 after receiving tips about corruption at the Sheriff's Office, including allegations of misused funds. …