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High-ranking Sheriff’s Office official, cleared of criminal wrongdoing, retires

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of January 7, 2021)

A report from the state attorney's office last month revealed that then Undersheriff Jim Harpring was investigated in late 2020 for possible criminal wrongdoing after he intervened to let a “family friend” change an answer about his drug use on an application for a deputy's job.

Harpring, who has since left the Sheriff's Office, insisted administrative personnel let deputy candidate Tanner Glass change his application to state that he had used drugs less often and not as recently as he originally stated, allowing his application to be approved.

Glass was conditionally hired by the Sheriff’s Office and is attending the law enforcement academy at Eastern Florida State College in Brevard County.

Sheriff-elect – now sheriff – Eric Flowers referred the matter to state prosecutors, who cleared Harpring of criminal wrongdoing but painted a troubling portrait of the incident in their report, raising questions about Harping’s tactics and the extent to which he intervened in the matter.

A report filed after a separate, internal affairs investigation at the Sheriff’s Office said Flowers alleged that Harpring “may have inappropriately facilitated an applicant, Tanner Glass, to wrongly portray himself within his application for employment at the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office.”

The State Attorney’s Office launched its month-long investigation in November and issued its report on Dec. 14.

Assistant State Attorney Ryan Butler said Flowers provided statements from Sheriff’s Office employees involved in the incident as well as documents that included copies of both versions of Glass’ application.

“Law enforcement agencies ask us to do this from time to time,” Butler said. “They want a neutral party to look into something to determine whether there’s anything that rises to the level of a crime.

“We went pretty quickly.”

Harping, 58, who declined to be interviewed by State Attorney’s Office investigators, said the timing of his decision to retire on Dec. 4 after 15 years with the agency “had nothing to do with this investigation,” and that he had been discussing his retirement with then Sheriff Loar for the past year.

“After their review,” Harping wrote in a statement emailed to Vero Beach 32963 when the State Attorney’s investigation was complete, “I was fully cleared of any wrongdoing because I did nothing wrong.”

It was Glass’ response to standard drug-use questions on his application that prompted Harping, who Glass told investigators was “a family friend,” to become involved in the process.

According to the prosecutors’ 9-page report, Glass wrote in his original application, submitted in February, that he had smoked marijuana 50 times, most recently on Jan. 2, 2020, only a month before he applied for the job.

The Sheriff’s Office’s Selection Process Manual states that candidates may be disqualified if they used any illegal drug within two years of filing their applications. Sheriff’s Office Human Resources employee Anne Cochran discovered the problem and disqualified Glass, who, apparently, wasn’t aware of the policy.

Interviewed at the police academy by State Attorney’s Office Investigator Jeffrey Hamrick, Glass said he didn’t know of the drug disqualification policy until he “researched” it after submitting his application.

It was then that Glass “remembered he made a mistake” when answering those questions.

“Undersheriff Harping was a family friend and his contact at the Sheriff’s Office, so he contacted him and asked if he could change his answers,” the report states. “He said Harpring told him that he could submit a second application.”

Glass told Hamrick that Harpring “never told him he needed to change his answer about marijuana use.”

The investigator noted, however, that Glass was “physically trembling” during the interview, and his responses were “guarded and required additional questioning to obtain more information.”

A Sheriff’s Office background investigator who reviewed a computer voice-stress analysis performed during Glass’ application process said the results showed the applicant “exhibited signs of deception on questions about drug use.”

The prosecutors’ report states that Harping intervened by phoning Sheriff’s Office Human Resources Director Laura Turner to inquire about corrective measures when applicants for deputy jobs make mistakes filling out their applications.

Turner told Harping the agency didn’t allow applicants to alter their applications, which are electronically locked upon their submission. Still, he asked her to unlock Glass’ application.

Turner told an investigator she was “uncomfortable” with Harpring’s request that she allow Glass to correct his responses on the job application and suggested he take his request to Cochran, who handled the application.

When interviewed by investigators, Cochran told Hamrick she had never before been asked to allow an applicant to change an answer on an application, but she had allowed them to include additional information.

Cochran told investigators she felt Harping had “ordered her” to unlock the electronically filed document.

“She was extremely uncomfortable with the request,” the report states, adding that after consulting with Turner and other HR employees, Cochran printed a copy of Glass’ original application before unlocking it so Glass could alter it.

Turner told Hamrick the system the agency uses does not automatically retain original versions of applications once they’re altered.

With his application unlocked, Glass changed his drug-use answers, stating he hadn’t used marijuana since July 4, 2017 – two and a half years earlier than he originally said – and that he had used it only 20 times, not 50.

The changes in Glass’ responses raised the investigators’ doubts about their veracity.

“Glass explained that, after submitting his application, he discovered recent drug use would disqualify him from employment as a deputy, and this research jogged his memory about when he had really last used marijuana,” the report states.

“A reasonable person could conclude that this explanation was not credible,” the report continues, citing not only the change in dates of his last marijuana use but also a noticeable decrease in the number of times he used the drug over a longer period of time.

“His newly recovered memory of last drug use was both coincidental and fortuitous,” the report states, “because it no longer disqualified him from employment as a deputy.”

While State Attorney’s Office investigators found grounds for suspicion, they were unable to uncover sufficient evidence to pursue criminal charges against Glass, who maintained he simply made a mistake and that no one told him to change his answers.

“The state’s evidence of the falsity of Glass’ altered application would consist solely of reasonable suspicions,” the report states. “Reasonable suspicions are less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The State Attorney’s Office report said investigators uncovered no evidence that Harpring “falsified an official record” or “acted with corrupt intent.”

The Sheriff’s Office’s Internal Affairs Division report, which was released on Dec. 23, found no fault with Harpring’s actions.

Instead, the IA report stated: “There is no evidence that Undersheriff Harpring instructed any party to lie or otherwise be dishonest,” or that he violated any agency policy or procedure.

The IA report did not mention the concerns Turner and Cochran expressed about Harpring’s intervention or their objections to letting Glass change his drug use answer.

In its report, the State Attorney’s Office found a “weakness in the Sheriff’s Office’s maintenance of employment applications” and recommended the agency review its electronic employment-application system to avoid violating Florida’s public-records law.

“The software program used for applications allows for the possibility that an applicant could overwrite a public record, with no retention of the original application,” the report states.

“This possibility could subject the agency to liability for the inadvertent destruction of public records.”