Lakeland Police Chief Lisa Womack was placed on paid administrative leave on Thursday after an investigation reported that she changed hiring practices within the police department and vetoed a competency examination to help her nephew get a job with the police department.
The move comes a week after Womack resigned her position as head of the department, which has faced a number of scandals in recent months, some of them predating her time as chief. Womack was allowed to stay for three months while the department began its search for a new police chief.
The State Attorney’s Office of the Tenth Judicial Circuit, which covers Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties, completed its investigation and submitted its “investigative summary” on Thursday. The investigation center on hiring practices at the department when Womack’s nephew applied for a public safety aide position in 2012.
Lakeland City Manager Doug Thomas named Assistant Chief Larry Giddens as acting chief and released a statement Thursday evening saying the city will review the report.
“The report raises serious allegations against Police Chief Lisa Womack regarding potential violations of Florida Statutes,” Thomas said in the statement.
He added that the state attorney’s office had completed its investigation and wasn’t “pursuing any further actions.”
Because Womack’s nephew is a “nephew-in-law” who is related by marriage, Womack’s actions did not violate nepotism laws, according to the report.
Applicants for the public safety aide position, which included her nephew, Rhett Hughes, were required to take a written and video examination. The ones who passed would be allowed to move on to the next step in the hiring process.
A total of 35 candidates took the test - 18 passed. Hughes, who had graduated high school in 2011 and came from out of state to take the exam, didn’t pass, and didn’t qualify under city rules to continue in the application process, according to the report.
But after Hughes failed the test, some Lakeland Police Department staff began to question the validity of the test to the Assessment Services Department. The competency of a police department employee who helped administer the test also was brought into question, according to the state attorney’s investigation.
Womack’s husband, Jimmy Womack, called Assistant Chief of Police Charles Thompson to express his concern with the tests and “expressing his dissatisfaction with the results,” according to the state attorney’s investigation. Chief Womack was reportedly in the room when her husband made the call, according to the report.
Thompson contacted the Assessment Services director. The tests were validated by the department.
Still, Chief Womack ordered that the examinations be disregarded and that all 35 candidates, including her nephew, could continue in the process, according to the report.
Womack also ordered that the next part of the application process - physical abilities test, interview, polygraph, psychological examination and medical examination - be administered at the same time for the benefit of out-of-state applicants, the report said.
Captain Victor White, who was ordered by Womack to make sure all the exams were given at the same time, told investigators that changing the process of the exams was “illegal.”
“It certainly is improper and it would be very, very expensive,” White told the state attorney’s office.
Chief Womack later told White and Thompson that she had removed her nephew from the pool of candidates. But Hughes received an invitation to participate in the next step in the process. In January 2013, he sent an email to Lakeland police staff stating that he wouldn’t be participating in the fitness and interview process.
“She disregarded all governing authority and abused her given power,” the report states. “Her husband Jimmy Womack reportedly intervened with the Chief’s knowledge, and criticized LPD (Lakeland Police Department) staff for the failure of their nephew.”
Hughes was never hired.
Lakeland police ended up hiring four public safety aides. Two people had passed the test and two had not passed the test.
“This appears to be an unprecedented action which resulted in the negligent hiring of individuals who failed a required employment exam contrary to the City of Lakeland Civil Service Rules and LPD’s own General Orders,” according to the investigation.