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Couple's careers at Hernando County Sheriff's Office come to unhappy ending

BROOKSVILLE — Reflecting on the last four painful weeks, Wendy McGinnis struggled to hold back tears.

Faced with a forced transfer by Sheriff Al Nienhuis from the public information officer post she had wanted for so long, McGinnis opted last month to retire instead.

On Tuesday, her husband, Brian, resigned from his patrol sergeant post with 14 months left before he could retire with full benefits.

"It's been an emotional month, and I'm really going to miss my Sheriff's Office family," Wendy McGinnis, 40, told the Times during an interview Friday. "I loved my job, but I just would have a hard time working for (Nienhuis) after he transferred me and demoted me when I feel in my heart I did nothing wrong."

A few hours later, the Sheriff's Office released internal investigations of the McGinnises and Deputy Stephen Klapka. The inquiries detail relatively minor offenses of an agency policy that requires employees to seek permission before working for or owning a business in Hernando County, but they sparked a chain of events that would prompt the McGinnises to leave.

Nienhuis told the Times on Friday that he never wanted the couple to leave.

"They've done a good job and there's no hard feelings," he said. "A little bit of disappointment, but no hard feelings."

• • •

Launched early last month, the investigation concluded that Brian McGinnis, 53, should have obtained written approval when he launched a company, Serve and Protect Financial Inc.

"Particularly when such a business venture appears to have tailored itself as a financial/retirement planning business focused at law enforcement and other employees of our agency," Col. Mike Maurer wrote in a reprimand.

On Monday, Brian McGinnis learned that a second, related internal investigation had been launched. He tendered his resignation Tuesday. He declined to comment Friday.

Klapka, who was listed as a director for the company, and Wendy McGinnis, listed as secretary, were each given verbal warnings.

Klapka, 51, appealed the findings. He noted that he received no salary or benefits from the company and that he planned to wait until retirement before working for it.

Klapka — the long-time president of the agency's Fraternal Order of Police lodge — on Friday learned that his appeal was successful. The results of the investigation would be switched to "unsustained," Maurer wrote in a memo, but he cautioned Klapka to heed the policy if he becomes more involved with the company.

"My name was being dragged through the mud, and I didn't do anything wrong," Klapka told the Times. "I'm glad this is all cleared up."

Wendy McGinnis, who was a corporal at the time, also disputes the findings and plans to appeal.

According to a written summary of the verbal warning signed by Maurer, McGinnis used the office email system "marketing" the company on at least two occasions. She also wore a shirt with the company's logo "at events closely associated with our agency."

"You should have known that your actions certainly give the appearance that you are part of Protect and Serve Financial Inc.," Maurer wrote.

McGinnis said she only recalls using the agency email on one occasion, creating a flier for a March fundraiser for a law-enforcement-related charity. Nienhuis approved the flier, though he didn't realize at the time who was involved with Protect and Serve Financial.

At that event, the McGinnises and Klapka wore the shirts with the company logo. It was the only event where the couple wore the shirts, Wendy McGinnis said. Nienhuis recognized the logo as the one on the flier.

She reiterated what her husband posted on his Facebook last month: As secretary, she had no direct involvement in the company's operations.

"Was this fair?" she said. "Why did he have to initiate an internal affairs investigation? I had nothing to hide."

• • •

Just before the official inquiries were launched last month, McGinnis said, Nienhuis told her she could submit paperwork requesting a transfer that would mean a demotion to deputy because no corporal positions were open.

But Nienhuis also said he told McGinnis that any discipline she might receive as a result of the inquiry would likely be a blip in her personnel file.

"I told her she'd done a good job as my public information officer up to the point that all this started, and that would not be forgotten," he said. "I explained to her that you don't want to do anything rash until the IA gets done."

McGinnis said Friday she'd enjoyed working for Nienhuis up to then but felt compelled to retire.

"It's principle," she said. "I'm going to take a stand for my brothers and sisters in law enforcement."

Nienhuis would not comment on the second internal investigation into Brian McGinnis but emphasized that the inquiry focuses on potential policy violations and is not criminal in nature.

Wendy McGinnis said the investigation focuses on the Facebook post he wrote last month defending her after her departure.

"My wife is devastated," he wrote. "But she knows deep down that she did nothing wrong and I am extremely proud of her for exhibiting the character to resign/retire from a profession that she LOVED, which has betrayed her."

Brian McGinnis joined the agency in 1998. His personnel file, like his wife's, is virtually unblemished and packed with commendations.

In his four-sentence resignation letter, McGinnis didn't mention any of the tumult of the last month.

"After much thought and discussion with family, friends and professionals whom I respect," he wrote, "retiring at this time in my career would be in the best interest for my overall health and well-being."

Wendy McGinnis, who joined Sheriff's Office full time in early 1999, starts Monday in a management position at a local company she declined to name. She said the excitement of starting the next phase of their lives is bittersweet.

"Brian and I agree," she said, "this is not how our careers were supposed to end."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@tampabay.com.

Couple's careers at Hernando County Sheriff's Office come to unhappy ending 05/04/12 [Last modified: Friday, May 4, 2012 8:34pm]
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