Saturday, March 17, 2018

Talk of leadership dominates Republican primary for Hernando County sheriff

Editor's note: This story is the last in a series leading up to Tuesday's primary election.

The signs urging voters to "Keep Sheriff Al Nienhuis" started popping up months ago. But in a way, the Nienhuis election campaign started on his first day on the job in January 2011.

Gov. Charlie Crist raised the ire of some Hernando County residents when he appointed Nienhuis, then undersheriff in Pasco County, to finish the last half of Sheriff Rich Nugent's four-year term. Nugent, who was elected to Congress, had recommended then-Col. Mike Maurer as his successor.

Maurer had the support of many in the agency and community, so Nienhuis came to Hernando as an outsider who had to ease rankled minds and prove he could do the job.

Twenty months later, the sheriff contends he has done just that. He is asking voters to pick him in Tuesday's two-candidate Republican primary and, if he wins, to choose him over Democratic candidate Eddie McConnell in November.

"I think we've got a great team here, and the numbers support the performance of that team," Nienhuis said. "I think we can take partial credit for the low crime numbers. We can take complete credit for the clearance numbers. And response times are good."

Ask challenger Robert "Bobby" Sullivan" why he is running for sheriff, and he can boil it down to two words: Al Nienhuis.

Sullivan, a Brooksville native, worked his way through the ranks of the Pasco Sheriff's Office and retired as a captain in 2007. He worked under Nienhuis for about seven years and has attacked his former boss on several fronts, especially for his lack of experience as a patrol cop and the way he got the sheriff's post.

"I have no personal issues with Al Nienhuis," Sullivan said. "It's just he's not a leader, and he's not a cop. I believe Hernando County should have someone who knows the community, who is part of the community, and has a genuine care and concern for the community and didn't receive this job as a backroom political payback."

• • •

A native of St. Petersburg, Nienhuis started his career in 1987 as a part-time officer for the Florida Marine Patrol in the Tampa Bay area. He later joined the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco as a special agent in 1989.

During the next five years, he took part in undercover drug operations and investigations of economic crimes. Nienhuis served for about a year with the division as a lieutenant in Sarasota, then for three years as captain in Fort Myers overseeing five counties.

Nienhuis dismisses Sullivan's criticism that he can't relate to the work that road patrol deputies do every day. He noted his time floating solo as the only marine patrol officer in a five-county area. Later, he said, he and fellow alcohol and tobacco agents made dozens of drug arrests.

He joined the Pasco Sheriff's Office in 2000 and served as Sheriff Bob White's second-in-command for the next decade. Nienhuis oversaw daily operations of the agency, which toward the end of his tenure had about 1,250 employees and an annual budget of about $85 million.

During his time in Pasco, Nienhuis fired several high-ranking staffers because, according to Sullivan, they didn't share his political philosophy.

Nienhuis flatly denies that, saying he was only carrying out orders from White.

Upon his arrival in Hernando, Nienhuis tapped Maurer as his second-in-command. Nienhuis said it was the right call because Maurer had already proven his ability to help run the agency. But the move also helped ease some tension in the agency and the community.

Nienhuis also vowed to make no major changes at an agency that he said was already running well.

Sullivan has criticized Nienhuis for the decision to forgo the agency's reaccreditation process. Nienhuis contends the effort takes resources that are no longer available. The decision, he said, allowed for a sergeant to be placed back on the street.

"Hopefully someday we can go back to it," he said.

Nienhuis noted the agency is pursuing accreditation for jail operations to show that best practices are being followed two years after the sheriff took over operations from a private contractor.

Last budget year, Nienhuis was able to trim 5 percent of his overall expenses, but fell $400,000 shy of the County Commission's goal. This year, Nienhuis could face an even tougher challenge, though the drama will play out after Tuesday's primary.

The sheriff had proposed a budget equal to last year's, about $38.2 million, and offered to cover the expense of putting four Animal Services officers on the street. Now, the County Commission, facing a larger-than-expected general fund shortfall, has directed Nienhuis to cut another $1.3 million. Nienhuis warns that would probably mean cutting some two dozen front-line employees. The command staff, he said, is already spread too thin.

He says it's still too early in the budget process to start specifying how he will accommodate the loss. Nienhuis is pinning at least some hope on the expectation that his agency will have some surplus funds to work with as the current budget year draws to a close.

The sheriff's tenure has not been without controversy, and Sullivan has tried to draw attention to two flaps.

Earlier this year, Nienhuis ordered internal affairs investigations into his spokeswoman, Cpl. Wendy McGinnis, her husband, Sgt. Brian McGinnis, and training Deputy Steve Klapka, who also serves as the agency's Fraternal Order of Police representative.

Nienhuis had learned that Brian McGinnis had opened a financial services business along with Klapka. The investigation concluded that Brian McGinnis should have obtained written approval when he launched the company.

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

Just before the official inquiries were launched, Nienhuis told Wendy McGinnis she would be transferred, which would have meant a demotion to deputy because no corporal positions were open.

McGinnis denied any direct involvement with the company and objected to Nienhuis opening the investigation in the first place. She chose to resign, and her husband did the same shortly thereafter.

Sullivan calls this another example of cruelty toward employees by Nienhuis. The sheriff contends the episode was blown out of proportion, and that he wouldn't do anything differently. The internal affairs investigation, he said, had to be conducted because the employees spanned different departments.

Shortly after that, Penny Mecklenburg publicly criticized how Nienhuis handled the signing of legislation named in honor of her husband, Deputy John Mecklenburg, who was killed last year in a high-speed chase.

Mecklenburg said Nienhuis arranged for a public signing ceremony, against her wishes, for political gain. Mecklenburg refused to attend, and has since said publicly that Nienhuis doesn't have the skills to be sheriff.

Nienhuis defended his decision to arrange the ceremony so members of the agency could attend.

"I didn't do it for political reasons," he said.

He refutes claims that the incidents with the McGinnises and Mecklenburg have affected morale at the agency. He said he was humbled by a letter of support sent recently to local media and signed by several dozen employees. Employees also donated to pay for an ad in the Tampa Bay Times. Nienhuis said he didn't ask anyone do to it and hasn't seen evidence to support claims that employees felt pressured to take part.

"I have a lot of people who tell me the truth, even if it's negative," he said.

If the donor list on Nienhuis' campaign finance report is an indication, he has won over many in the county. By July 27, Nienhuis had raised more than $50,000, by far the most of any candidate for local office, with a contribution list that reads like a who's who of the county's political and business elite.

Also among the donors are high-ranking Sheriff's Office employees, including Maurer.

• • •

Sullivan was 20 years old when he applied to be a deputy in Hernando. He was turned away, he said, because he was too young, so he headed south to Pasco and stayed for 26 years, including a decade as commander of the organized crime division.

"I'm the cop's candidate," he said. "I have the tools and the leadership ability to be the sheriff Hernando County deserves."

He has worked as executive director of security for Saint Leo University since 2009, garnering the experience, he said, to manage a budget and run a department.

Sullivan was also among the applicants Crist considered to fill Nugent's post. He said then that he only wanted to be a placeholder until the 2012 election and, if appointed, wouldn't run to keep the post. But he had no faith in the White/Nienhuis administration in Pasco, he said, so he felt compelled to challenge Nienhuis now.

Nienhuis was not an aggressive visionary with a concrete crime-fighting philosophy in Pasco and hasn't shown signs of being one here, Sullivan said.

One of Nienhuis' first steps, Sullivan said, should have been to work with other agencies to attack a backlog of outstanding warrants. The agency needs to "take the gloves off" the narcotics division and conduct more raids, he said.

"Had that type of mentality been brought in right from the beginning, the troops would have seen we're serious about fighting crime, and the community would have seen we're serious about fighting crime," he said.

Sullivan says he has a plan to reorganize the agency that would allow for the elimination of at least two high-ranking positions by attrition.

He said jail fees charged to inmates should be reviewed to see if they can be raised, possibly doubled, to bring in revenue. The county should mimic inmate work farms in Pasco and Marion that grow produce and livestock served in the jail, he said.

Sullivan has been citing incorrect crime rate figures that Nienhuis has acknowledged were errantly reported by his agency and have since been fixed to reflect a modest drop in the crime rate in 2011. Sullivan says Nienhuis is trying to take too much credit for the decline.

Though he worked in Pasco, Sullivan has remained a Hernando resident.

Sullivan has raised about $25,000 for his campaign, only about half of what the sheriff has raised. But Sullivan said he knows many of his opponent's donors, and they have told him in confidence that they felt compelled to support the Republican incumbent for the sake of the party.

And he says he has a lot of support among Sheriff's Office employees, though many feel they cannot do so publicly. He noted that his donations have increased in recent weeks.

"We feel like we've got momentum on our side," Sullivan said.

The membership of the local Fraternal Order of Police opted not to endorse a candidate in the primary race. Members wanted to avoid becoming embroiled in the politics, Klapka said.

"Basically the members are saying, whoever becomes sheriff, that's who we're going to work for."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]

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