Saturday, February 24, 2018
News Roundup

Pinellas licensing board leader Rodney Fischer described as a 'bully' and 'suspicious' in clashes with employees and county officials

Rodney Fischer was fuming.

He ordered his small staff into a conference room at the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board to deny a story ricocheting through the office.

"There is a rumor floating around that (I'm) . . . having an affair" with an employee, Fischer barked.

"There's nobody in this office that I'm going to bed with, or planning to go to bed with, or going to go to bed with. I just want to put that to rest right now!"

He threatened to fire them, according to a transcript of the meeting. He warned that he could seize their emails. He said he could sue them if they didn't stop spreading rumors.

"It was surreal," said Rebecca Fiesbeck, one of the office workers summoned to the meeting in 2013. "It's an understatement to say it was a difficult situation to deal with. That meeting was a grand finale of folly."

Fischer clashed with his employees at other times as well and has also butted heads with county officials, the Tampa Bay Times has found.

Fischer can be charming and knowledgeable, but also volatile and vindicative, according to interviews and a review of thousands of pages of public records. One employee described him as a bully. Another called him manipulative.

It's a management style enabled by a hands-off board of directors and the licensing board's unusual set-up as the only one of its kind in the state with no local oversight. County officials could not discipline Fischer even if they had grounds to.

Fischer has asserted that independence several times in recent years. In 2014, the Pinellas County inspector general described Fischer as "being difficult and impeding" an investigation, according to records obtained by the Times. A memo said Fischer's behavior was "unclear and suspicious."

Fischer has also dismissed the county's guidance on how to save money and protect taxpayers from liabilities, the Times found.

For instance, he has the power to host private organizations at the licensing board offices despite warnings from high-ranking county officials that taxpayers could be liable if anything went wrong or someone sued. He also signed a $223,000 lease for office space after he and the board rejected discounted rent at a county facility.

Fischer did not respond to multiple requests to discuss the findings of this investigation. His lawyer said a Times reporter could face a lawsuit and criminal prosecution if some of the information in this story were published.

Fischer has stressed the board safeguards "the life, health, property and public welfare of the citizens of Pinellas County."

"My intentions are to continue to ensure the credibility and longevity of this organization for the safety of consumers and advocacy for the construction profession," Fischer wrote to elected officials last week.

County administrator Mark Woodard is worried what impression the public might get from Fischer's behavior. He said it would be improper for agency leaders under his control to conduct a meeting like Fischer did in 2013.

In particular, Woodard was "deeply disturbed and troubled" that Fischer had threatened to fire and said he could sue his own employees during a staff meeting.

"For those of us that are proud to serve the citizens of Pinellas County, this behavior is not indicative of the professionalism exhibited by county employees," Woodard wrote in a statement. "Additionally, it is not in keeping with the standards and expectations set for those that report to the county administrator."

• • •

Fischer, 72, a former home builder from Palm Harbor, joined the licensing board in 1973. He served 20 years as the chairman and became executive director in 2001.

Fischer earns $118,000 annually to manage a staff of six women and three men in a small office complex in Largo. The agency, which has a budget of about $1.8 million that it collects from license fees and fines imposed on contractors, was set up to protect consumers from shoddy construction.

While the licensing board operates outside county authority, it relies on the county for help with human resources, legal advice and accounting systems.

Fischer and the licensing board have come under fire since the Times published an investigation earlier this month into potential conflicts of interest, possible violations of public records laws, and whether a board committee that helps handle discipline treated consumers and contractors fairly.

Several state legislators have called for the board to be reformed or abolished. The Pinellas County Commission has requested the board be brought under its control, something only the Florida Legislature can do. The Pinellas County Attorney's Office also started a review of the agency.

Fischer has hired a public relations firm and recently referred to himself as a "charismatic leader" with a "high degree of emotional intelligence."

Fiesbeck, the office worker, agreed Fischer could charm anybody, but he also went on "power trips."

Fischer hired Fiesbeck in April 2011 and wrote she exhibited "strong organizational and team player skills which are extremely essential" in a small office.

At the 2013 meeting, the transcript shows staffers bickered with Fischer about the rumor.

"Nobody's getting blamed at this point in time," Fischer said.

He warned them again to stop spreading gossip about him and one of his closest aides.

"I'm very serious about this. This is the kind of thing that ruins people's careers," said Fischer, who again denied having an affair.

Fiesbeck said she turned on the recorder, which was on the conference room table and normally used to record public meetings, because she feared Fischer would threaten her or the other women.

The meeting still bothers Fiesbeck. She has never "experienced anything even similar" in her career.

So, what did the staff do later that day?

"It was business as usual," said Fiesbeck, who later transferred to another county department. "We went ahead with the previously scheduled employee lunch. Yes, we all sat down in the same conference room . . . and pretended everything was fine."

Fiesbeck was not the only employee who feuded with Fischer.

• • •

Ken Burnett, 62, a former deputy police chief in Illinois, joined the licensing board in March 2012 as an investigator.

He said he soon discovered that Fischer had two sets of rules: one for his favorites, and one for the others.

Burnett complained to the inspector general and county officials after Fischer hired his secretary's son, Anthony DeBernardi. Burnett questioned whether DeBernardi was qualified. It didn't matter. Fischer's independent authority gave him power to hire any person he wants, the inspector general concluded.

Fischer, according to Burnett, then targeted him for retaliation.

In November 2015, Fischer dismissed Burnett for not showing up to work. But records show that Fischer had approved Burnett's time off two months earlier. Human resources quickly reinstated Burnett.

"Fischer wanted me out of there because I was asking too many questions," Burnett told the Times. "Some employees want to speak up but are afraid of losing their jobs."

Burnett said he could not thrive in an "extremely hostile work environment" and resigned in December 2015.

"There have been fabrications of stories, lies and deceit, double standards and rules for certain employees," Burnett wrote in his resignation letter. "I have seen official government records that have been altered, falsified or deleted just to protect themselves from severe consequences."

Another former lawman also objected to Fischer hiring DeBernardi.

In early 2013, Jim Mapes, who spent 25 years at several Pinellas police agencies, helped screen potential applicants on a committee with then-investigator Anne Maddox and Fischer's secretary, Carol Jones, who is DeBernardi's mother.

Fischer removed Mapes from the committee without explanation, Mapes said. Maddox and Jones then picked DeBernardi, even though he had multiple driving infractions, something that usually disqualified candidates, Mapes said.

"(Fischer) looked the other way," said Mapes, who spent 20 years at the licensing board. "He stabbed me in the back. I had 25 years in law enforcement. I don't know why he took me off the committee."

Fischer's ties to DeBernardi go beyond being his boss. Fischer also rents a mobile home to DeBernardi. The Times requested emails from Fischer's county account regarding the terms of the lease. Fischer declared the "communications . . . exempt from the public records law."

Woodard, the county administrator, said that "from a management perspective, business and financial relationships between organizational supervisors and their direct reports should be discouraged or prohibited."

• • •

Fischer also battled with the Pinellas County inspector general after a resident complained that a licensing board investigator had unlawfully searched a vehicle.

Inspector General Hector Collazo Jr., whose office investigates suspected waste, fraud and abuse, complained that Fischer refused to provide records related to the 2014 complaint.

Collazo wrote in a memo to Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller Ken Burke that Fischer was "being difficult and impeding the process" and "working on 'putting a stop' to the IG conducting audits and investigations."

Fischer, Collazo said, stressed the "IG has no authority" to investigate the licensing board.

"Mr. Fischer is attempting to manage the investigation and prevent this office from conducting a true and thorough investigation," Collazo wrote.

Fischer told investigators he was reluctant to cooperate because prior probes "left a bad taste in his mouth" about fairness, records show.

The investigators called Fischer's behavior "unclear and suspicious" and said his "obvious resistance, impediment and lack of cooperation" was "obstructing this formal investigation."

The Inspector General's Office eventually concluded there was not enough evidence to prove or disprove whether the investigator wrongly searched the resident's vehicle.

In a separate complaint to the inspector general, an employee feared that private meetings of the Pinellas Gator Club held at the licensing board offices could put investigative files at risk.

Fischer, the vice president of the local Gator club, said he used the office because the club couldn't find restaurant space.

Other county workers need permission from the county real estate director to host outside groups.

Collazo worried about liabilities for taxpayers.

"The county does have some exposure and could be liable should some unfortunate event occur, whether it occurs in leased or county-owned facilities," he wrote in the report.

So, what did Fischer do weeks later? He got the licensing board's approval to host more private groups in the future.

Fischer likes that office, at least enough that he and the board rejected an offer of cheaper rent at a county facility in Clearwater, closer to the county building department.

In May 2014, Fischer signed a five-year lease for $223,000 to remain in the Largo office.

He had told an assistant county attorney that he would resist any further pressure to move closer to the county facilities, records show.

"Yeah, they're not giving up," Fischer reportedly told the attorney. "I'll have to think of some more reasons to keep me away from them."

• • •

Many of the agency's board of 21 directors have told the Times that they were unaware of the office turmoil.

St. Petersburg building official Rick Dunn, the board's interim chair, said Fischer manages the agency, not board members, adding: "We have nothing to do with the day-to-day."

Unlike other department leaders, Fischer works under a yearly contract. The four-page contract says the board of directors shall conduct an annual evaluation of Fischer in March and "mutually establish" annual work objectives every fiscal year.

The Times has requested Fischer's evaluations and annual objectives since 2011. Maddox, the board's administrative manager, said the agency has "no records responsive to your request."

Pinellas County director of building services Larry Goldman, who serves on the 21-member licensing board, said in a statement that management and staff should always "fully cooperate with any sanctioned investigations in order to establish the truth."

Pinellas County expects its managers to react to staff issues in a professional and courteous manner, he said.

"This is not acceptable behavior in a government workplace," Goldman said.

Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

 
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