One officer fired from a previous agency and hired by Hendry County Sheriff Steve Whidden was rebuked by her former employer for attempting to influence a child custody case involving the daughter of Chief Deputy Kevin Nelson, the agency’s second-highest ranked deputy, personnel and court records show.
The Sheriff’s Office hired Allison Bennett, a former Department of Children and Families investigator and family friend of Nelson’s, in 2014 after DCF investigated her for intervening in the custody case.
DCF personnel records show the agency fired Bennett after discovering that she requested a child protection team and contacted an assistant state attorney in November 2013 about allegations of molestation, which prosecutors said were unfounded, against Nelson’s former son-in-law, who was employed with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office.
According to the personnel records, DCF knew that Bennett, who was on leave at the time and had just completed the police academy, had her sights on a position at the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office because it had previously called to conduct an employment verification.
“You acted in a negligent manner in intervening in an open investigation and interviewing the children of personal friends,” DCF Regional Managing Director Michael Carroll wrote in Bennett’s termination letter, obtained through a public records request. “You acted in a manner to promote your personal interest concerning a position with the Hendry County Sheriff.”
Deputies also noted that the Sheriff’s Office circumvented the normal hiring process for Bennett by allowing her to forgo a polygraph and psychological evaluation, which was corroborated by a lack of supporting records in her personnel file.
“I called (Nelson) out on that with her,” former Lt. Leonard Richardson said in an interview. “He looked me dead in the eyes and said, ‘Everyone takes a poly and psyche.’ I knew she didn’t because I ran the (field training officer) program and she confessed she hadn’t done either.”
In her last few years at DCF, performance issues dogged Bennett with her evaluations never exceeding 3.1 out of a scale of 5 and supervisors noting that she needed to improve on multiple occasions, her DCF personnel file showed. The Sheriff’s Office fired Bennett months into her employment after she failed field training.
The interference in the child custody case didn’t end with Bennett. Hendry County Judge James Sloan noted in a 2016 court order that Capt. Susan Harrelle, another Whidden hire, was caught passing notes to Nelson’s daughter in court and that Nelson was sending letters to then-Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott in an attempt to get his former son-in-law fired. Other deputies attempted to work on the case despite it being outside of their jurisdiction. The legal counsel for the sheriff’s office also represented Nelson’s daughter in court.
Before Whidden hired her, Harrelle was president of a trucking company she co-owned with her husband that illegally received resources from the city of Belle Glade, according to court and corporation records. Her husband, Lomax Harrelle, was city manager at the time. Although Susan Harrelle was not charged, her husband pleaded guilty to the charge of official misconduct for using city resources for personal gain, court records show.
Sloan set the custody exchange point outside Hendry County, citing Nelson’s former son-in-law’s “well-founded and legitimate fear of venturing into Hendry County because of the fact the wife’s father is the chief deputy for the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office.”
“This type of interference does nothing to advance the interests of the parties of their children and needs to stop,” wrote Sloan, who admonished the conduct of the Sheriff’s Office.
After Nelson’s son-in-law filed a complaint against Nelson, the Sheriff’s Office conducted an internal affairs investigation but exonerated him.
Questions sent to Nelson and Harrelle at the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office were not returned. Calls to Bennett and questions sent to an email address listed for her were not returned.
Connect with reporter Devan Patel: @DevanJPatel (Twitter) or firstname.lastname@example.org