BROOKSVILLE — Pasco County Undersheriff Al Nienhuis got the call in his office late Tuesday afternoon.
It was the news he had hoped for: Gov. Charlie Crist had tapped him to serve the last two years of Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent's term.
"I appreciate the governor's confidence in my abilities," Nienhuis said. "It's an exciting time."
Nugent was elected in November to the District 5 congressional seat currently held by Brooksville Republican Ginny Brown-Waite. His resignation as sheriff is effective Friday.
On paper, the 47-year-old Nienhuis has the experience one would expect in such an appointment, and he was a clear frontrunner in a solid field of eight candidates.
But Crist's choice was stunning in at least one sense: Nugent, a popular Republican sheriff in the middle of his third term, had recommended that Crist name Mike Maurer, Hernando operations chief, to finish his term. That would make for a smooth transition that would be best for the agency and county residents, Nugent said.
Nugent could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.
Speculation was rampant that Nienhuis was the dark horse. He is friends with Crist and Republican state Sen. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey, one of Crist's closest allies.
In a statement, Crist focused on Nienhuis' resume.
"Al's 15 years as a dedicated law enforcement officer have given him the experience and skills he needs to honorably serve the people of Hernando County," Crist said. "The leadership he has shown as an undersheriff for nearly a decade have prepared him to serve as one of the top law enforcement officers in our state."
Maurer said he was "very disappointed."
He joined the Hernando department in 1988 when Sheriff Tom Mylander was in office and rose through the ranks with Capt. Scott Bierwiler, who in recent years was considered a top contender for sheriff. When Bierwiler died in a car wreck in 2009, Maurer became a frontrunner to someday succeed Nugent. He already helps run the agency and has deep ties in the community.
"I certainly thought that carried weight, but the governor has spoken," Maurer said. "It hasn't always been about me; it's been about the agency. I'll pull up my bootstraps and do what's best for the people of Hernando County and the Sheriff's Office to make sure we provide the high level of service that I feel we're known for."
Both Nienhuis and Maurer say they have a solid professional relationship, and Nienhuis said he looks forward to working with Maurer.
"My goal is to build on the successes of both Sheriff Mylander and Sheriff Nugent," he said. "I'm never satisfied with the status quo. It's going to take a little bit of time to understand the agency and all the nuances and figure out those things that need to be worked on."
Nienhuis said he could not say for sure whether politics factored into Crist's decision to name him sheriff.
"It would be an issue if there were questions about my qualifications," he said. "I don't want to sound immodest, but I do have a little experience, and I think I can be an asset to the citizens of Hernando County."
He said he will be moving to Hernando County soon.
Nienhuis' law enforcement career began in 1985 with the Florida Marine Patrol, where he first volunteered and later worked part time.
From 1989 to 2000, he served in the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, first as a special agent, then as a sergeant, in the Clearwater district office. He later worked as a lieutenant in the Sarasota district office and as a captain in the Fort Myers district office.
He took his current job in 2001 and has been responsible for detention and law enforcement daily operations in Pasco.
Nienhuis earned a bachelor's degree from the University of South Florida. A graduate of the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Academy, he plans to complete a master's degree in business administration in 2011.
Nienhuis will serve until Jan. 7, 2013. The sheriff's post will be on the 2012 election ballot.
Assistant State Attorney Don Barbee, who runs the State Attorney's Office in Brooksville and has experience as a police officer and FBI agent, also sought the appointment. Among the other applicants were Eddie McConnell, who worked at the Hernando Sheriff's Office for more than two decades and is now a lieutenant with the Groveland Police Department; and Peter Federico, a major crimes detective with the Pasco Sheriff's Office.
Fasano has known Nienhuis for about 15 years and spoke to Crist about him.
"The governor chose the person whom I believe is the best qualified for the position and will do an outstanding job for the people of Hernando County," Fasano said.
"He's a true professional," Fasano said of Nienhuis. "In my opinion, he brings no politics to the Sheriff's Office.
"He's all cop."
Erin Sullivan contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.