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COMPLETE STORY: Plant City fires police chief
Ever since Plant City suspended Police Chief Steven Singletary Jan. 17, one question remained: Why?
City Manager Greg Horwedel revealed the reasons behind Singletary’s suspension — and now termination — during a press conference Jan. 28, at City Hall.
Singletary primarily violated several of the Plant City Police Department’s general order code of conduct items, including making false statements on reports, faking illnesses for sick days and persuading another police officer to cover up activities pertaining to an extramarital affair.
For three years, Singletary had been abusing department code and assets to carry on an affair, according to a city-led investigation. His termination also resulted in another officer’s firing, Sgt. Mark Mathis.
“I want to emphasize at this point that Mr. Singletary is not being terminated solely because he had an extramarital affair,”Horwedel said. “I understand those things happen in today’s world, like it or not. The most important issues for me were Mr. Singletary’s actions related to the code of conduct, specifically those items outlined above that were sustained violations.”
City officials had been silent on the reason behind Singletary’s suspension during the weeklong investigation.
Singletary reported his own indiscretions on Jan. 13.
According to the investigation, Singletary had been having an affair with family friend Melissa Hardwick. Most recently, she joined Singletary for dinner while he was attending a Florida Police Chief’s Conference Jan. 12, in Orlando. While they were having dinner, Hardwick’s husband, Jason, showed up at the restaurant and took pictures of Singletary and his wife.
Melissa Hardwick returned to the room with Singletary, which caused investigators to debate what entails city time and what doesn’t. In the end, Horwedel said it comes down to expectations.
“There’s very little, if any, distinction if there is off-time or not with city officials,” he said.
A day after the incident, Singletary called Assistant City Manager of Public Safety Bill McDaniel to report the incident.
“Chief Singletary advised that he was concerned that Jason Hardwick might be coming to that night’s scheduled City Commission meeting with the photographs and to conduct a press conference about the extramarital affair,” according to investigation documents.
Following the conversation, McDaniel consulted with Horwedel. Together, they had a meeting Jan. 15, with Singletary.
“During this meeting, Chief Singletary stated that this matter was personal and had nothing to do with his position or job performance as chief of police,” the investigation stated.
Two days later, Jason Hardwick met with McDaniel and Horwedel to provide more information.
“There were no threats,” McDaniel said of Jason Hardwick’s conduct. “He was very forthcoming and cooperative.”
Jason Hardwick also “further related relevant information about Chief Singletary’s conduct surrounding that affair, as well as other incidents that might have a bearing on Chief Singletary’s job-related performance,” the investigation stated.
The city recruited retired Sarasota Police Chief John Lewis Jan. 22, to act as an objective, third-party investigative consultant.
According to investigation documents, Singletary and Melissa Hardwick met on as many as nine separate occasions in 2013, at a hotel in Lakeland. Singletary took vacation hours to cover time for three of those meetings. On two meetings, he took sick time. On four dates, he did not note any form of leave time.
In the fall 2013, Singletary used his position as chief to gain access to restricted city property known as the “pistol range” to meet Melissa Hardwick.
“Chief Steven Singletary was reluctant to discuss this matter with his superiors in the city management structure — even after he admitted his indiscretion and the incident in Orlando,” the investigation stated. “Chief Singletary demonstrated a lack of comprehension of the potential impact of his actions upon his status and standing as chief of police and the impact that his actions could have on his effectiveness to command police operations and personnel.”
THE WOOD COURT INCIDENT
On Jan. 23, Melissa Hardwick guided Lewis and McDaniel to a business at 2002 Wood Court, in Plant City, where an incident that directly violated the code of conduct had occurred on Feb. 19, 2011. Singletary and Melissa Hardwick had been parked on private property and were blocked in by the business owner, Rick Wright.
“Wright said that the incident in question was not the first time that he had seen the same two cars on his property,” the investigation said.
Wright used his black Chevrolet Tahoe to block the exit and called the Plant City Police Department to respond.
Before the officer arrived, Singletary exited his car, flashed a badge and told Wright that “it would be his best interest to let them leave.”
Singletary was a captain at the time.
Officer Mark Mathis arrived on the scene and, after speaking with Singletary, told Wright to let the cars go and there would be no further problems.
However, on his dispatched call record, Mathis wrote that “both vehicles were (gone upon arrival).”
Mathis was fired for falsifying the dispatch record.
“It’s public trust, and I feel public trust in this case was violated,” Horwedel said. “We will have to work to restore that. And I think our police department will do an exceptional job.”
However, that public mistrust may continue after Singletary’s and Mathis’ terminations. In her interview with investigators, Melissa Hardwick said Plant City Commissioner Billy Keel, a friend of Singletary’s, tried to prevent her from cooperating with the investigation. Keel sent text messages to a friend of Melissa Hardwick’s and asked the friend to urge Melissa Hardwick to keep quiet.
Melissa Hardwick said Keel’s text message stated her testimony could cost Singletary his job.
Horwedel, when asked about the allegations involving Keel, said investigators determined no crimes had occurred, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
The termination comes less than a year after Singletary was sworn into the post in April 2013. He replaced McDaniel, who took a position as assistant city manager of public safety.
Singletary joined the department in 1996, as a patrol officer. Since then, he had held a myriad of positions, including field training officer, a post in the Street Crimes Unit, the U.S. Marshal’s Fugitive Task Force, the Criminal Investigations Unit and more. Singletary was serving as captain before he took over as interim chief in December 2012.
“When we went through the process for a new police chief replacement, we looked internally,” Horwedel said. “He had a long record of service with the department.”
Until a new police chief is appointed, retired Plant City Dep. Chief John Borders will serve as interim chief.
“John brings vast operational experience and unquestioned integrity to the table, and we are deeply appreciative of his willingness to provide stability and leadership during this troubling time,” Horwedel said.
Contact Amber Jurgensen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read about how the Plant City Times & Observer made content decisions regarding this story in Editor Michael Eng’s column this week.