WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — During the colder months of the year, police agencies are contracted by Palm Beach County to protect manatees in our waterways.
"Some people actually don’t know that they are running through a manatee speed zone," said Mayra Ashton, an environmental analyst with the Environmental Resources Management Department of Palm Beach County.
But in 2017, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement wanted to file charges against a West Palm Beach police officer who was being paid to enforce manatee speed zones.
The FDLE investigation determined Lt. Gregory Babcock received more than $2,500 in overtime for hours he did not work.
Part of FDLE’s evidence came from a fellow officer turned whistleblower. He hired a licensed private investigator who recorded Babcock at home, working on a car in his driveway on a day he was paid eight hours of overtime, amounting to $700.
Before FDLE could conduct its own surveillance of Lt. Babcock, "he was approved an extended leave of absence under the City’s Family Medical Leave Act," according to the West Palm Beach Police Department's internal affairs report.
A few months into the FDLE investigation, Lt. Babcock contacted the city about a "mistake" he made on his timesheet and wanted to reimburse the county for the hours he realized he did not work. He sent the email in May 2017 to pay back overtime he worked in December 2016.
FDLE found there were discrepancies on other days Babcock claimed he was out enforcing manatee zones on the police department’s boat.
Despite the findings, the State Attorney’s Office did not file charges against Babcock, finding instead that the evidence did not meet the requirements for prosecution. The State Attorney’s Office "no file memorandum" said West Palm Beach Police Chief Sarah Mooney should handle the matter administratively.
WPTV went a step further into the investigation. Documents from the 2016-2017 manatee season showed there was only one weekend Babcock submitted written boating warnings he issued to boaters. WPTV tracked down the boaters.
"Not only do I not remember it, it never happened," said a boater whose name and boat is written on a boating warning for the first weekend of manatee enforcement season in November 2016. The boater said in looking at records from that day, he was working and his boat was in the water at a marina.
"They pull into a marina, they can write down a registration number on a boat they probably see out there," said the boater who wanted to remain anonymous because he was concerned that his boats may be targeted.
That boater said the boat written on the warning is his boat, but one he’s never driven.
Another boater had a similar story.
"I never got pulled over," the boater told WPTV over the phone.
WPTV’s Michelle Quesada asked, "Is it surprising to you that there’s this boating warning with your name on it, your boat information, saying you were in a manatee wake zone?"
"Yeah, that’s surprising, cause I pay mind to them actually," said the boater.
A third boater said in an email to WPTV that he’s been boating for 40 years and has never been cited or pulled over on the water.
"In checking my calendar and photos, I wasn't on the water the Saturday (11/19/16), as my wife and I had our grandkids at our house for a few days," the boater said.
Babcock submitted three other warnings in which WPTV was unable to track down the boaters.
One had no name for the driver of the boat and said it was a "test drive." Another warning showed a boater’s name that was not legible, and the address listed on the warning turned out to be an address for a UPS store in Jupiter.
The other warning had a boat registration number but no make and model. The boater’s name was not legible, but the address listed for the registration traced back to the Freedom Boat Club of Lake Park. Staff there could not verify if the boat was one of theirs and could not find a similar boater’s name on their rental list for the day the boating warning was issued.
None of the warnings had boater signatures, which is required under the County's Environmental Resources Management Department. Ashton said when an officer stops a boater violating the speed limit in a manatee zone, the officer is required to hand out educational materials to the boater, in addition to issuing a warning or citation.
Law enforcement expert Andrew Scott looked at the warnings.
"If you have boaters who allegedly were issued a warning by this officer and you’ve contacted those boaters and they have no recollection of this, and furthermore there’s no signature from that individual boater, now you have a significant problem," said Scott. "You have a problem of falsifying official documents."
On another day Babcock claimed overtime hours, there were two citations submitted for manatee zones, but they were signed by another officer.
In the last eight years, Babcock has been disciplined for eight internal affairs investigations including one for "loafing/inattention to duty."
"I think the city has an obligation to go back and investigate over a long period of time the actions and behaviors of the officer, but there’s a bigger picture here as well," said Scott. "Who is watching the hen house?"
An internal affairs investigation completed in 2018 by the West Palm Beach Police Department determined there were an additional 4.5 hours Babcock could not prove he worked. The city reimbursed the county for $393.75 on Sept. 17, 2018. It's not clear if that money came directly from Babcock’s pay.
"I have zero tolerance for anyone that fakes their timesheet and lies about the duties that they’ve been assigned," said Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay
McKinlay said she was aware of the FDLE investigation into Babcock, but now her office will be looking into the matter further after WPTV uncovered questions surrounding the boater warnings.
The police department’s internal affairs report explained "there was overwhelming evidence to indicate he (Babcock) was lazy and careless about turning in his paperwork." Chief Mooney recommended a demotion and 80 hours suspension for Babcock. His final discipline was the two weeks suspension, but he was not demoted.
Babcock voluntarily stepped down from working manatee enforcement in 2017, the same year FDLE completed its investigation. West Palm Beach police records showed he had been working the overtime enforcement details since 2012.
Chief Mooney declined to talk about this case because of an ongoing lawsuit filed by the whistleblower, who was fired by the department.
The whistleblower was also disciplined in the internal affairs investigation. The report said the whistleblower "inappropriately obtained financial statements" without Babcock’s permission or a search warrant. The report also pointed out the whistleblower did not report that he had belief or knowledge of violations and instead launched his own "covert, unauthorized investigation" without the permission or knowledge of the chief.
In the internal affairs report, Babcock told the investigator he was skeptical about the surveillance video a private investigator recorded of him and pointed out the video was not continuous, and said it may have been "spliced together." However, Babcock did not have any evidence to dispute the authenticity of the video.
The whistleblower told investigators he started to look into Babcock after another officer raised suspicions about the lieutenant’s work hours. The whistleblower told FDLE investigators that the weekend Babcock wrote the manatee zone warnings, he saw the police boat parked at the city facility complex. The whistleblower also said he documented that the boat’s meter did not move on certain days Babcock claimed overtime hours.
The State Attorney’s Office determined there was no evidence to prove the boat meter was functional and working properly prior to or after the investigation, even though FDLE revealed the boat had recently been serviced for its 100-hour service.
FDLE talked to the mechanic who worked on the boat, and the mechanic said the boat meter is connected to the engine of the boat and it moves in conjunction with the hours the engine is running.
FDLE also said other officers who worked on the boat said the boat meter was working fine.
Keith James, the newly elected Mayor of West Palm Beach, said his public safety liaison will be looking at any issues within the police department.
"I would probably talk to my commissioners and see if they could get our internal auditor to take a look at that," said James.
In the last year and a half, three West Palm Beach police officers have been arrested for theft while on duty.
"That is something that I will certainly be talking to the police chief about," said James.
The city did notify the Palm Beach County Office of Inspector General in 2017 about the allegations against Babcock made by a fellow officer. The Inspector General told WPTV that because FDLE was already conducting an investigation at the time, and then the police internal affairs department conducted its investigation, the OIG did not look into the matter but would if new evidence that was not already investigated came to light.
WPTV tried to reach Lt. Babcock for this report, but our calls were not returned. Babcock’s Police Benevolent Association attorney Rick King said the case was closed and he had no comment.
West Palm Beach police released this statement to WPTV late Tuesday:
"In light of the new information obtained by WPTV, which was not known during the original investigation, the West Palm Beach Police Department will contact the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office Public Corruption Unit, and request it conduct an independent investigation of the new allegation."
Mayor James released a statement to WPTV on Wednesday afternoon:
"We recognize that there is a pending investigation. We take the allegations very seriously and will take corrective action if the allegations are substantiated."