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Distrust followed new hire at Hernando County Emergency Management

BROOKSVILLE — When Tom Leto came on board as director of Hernando County Emergency Management in May 2003, Mark Tobert had high hopes that stability had finally come to his place of work.

"Me and him, we were on the same page when he started,'' Tobert said.

"We worked together building back from the ashes of the last disaster, the Bill Appleby disaster,'' Tobert recalled, referring to the manager before Leto. "We had a good working relationship.''

But all that changed in early 2006, when Leto hired Stephanie Anderson as his new secretary. Shortly after Anderson was brought on board, Leto issued a memo to his staff that no one was to claim overtime without his permission. Instead, people were to take time off to make up for overtime.

That set in motion an evolution in the small, tightly knit emergency management staff that ended this month with Leto's firing and Anderson's arrest on charges of official misconduct and collecting $9,300 in overtime she never worked.

Sheriff's Office interviews with the staff — past and present — paint a picture of a work environment full of suspicion, distrust and anxiety as Leto's preferential treatment of Anderson, and a personal relationship they developed, splintered the team environment for which Leto's boss had praised him in the past.

For interim emergency management director Tobert, who has now worked for four emergency managers in his 10 years with the county, that has meant picking up the pieces again.

• • •

In the beginning, Cecilia Patella and Anderson didn't just work together at Emergency Management. They carpooled.

Both lived in the same neighborhood in Citrus County.

A few months into the arrangement, the carpool ended amicably after Patella's schedule as an emergency management coordinator changed. But her proximity to Anderson's home would become significant later.

Patella's interviews with Sheriff's Office investigators reveal that she was sensing a change in the work environment soon after Anderson's arrival in the office. In late 2006, an audit of county cell phone use caught Anderson making an excessive number of personal calls from the office.

She had to pay the county back for those calls, and all staffers were reminded that personal calls were not permitted.

"In retrospect, this was the beginning of our transition into a secretive and hostile environment,'' according to Patella's account to investigators. "In my opinion, Stephanie was trying to keep us from seeing what was really going on.''

With a change in the computer system used by the staff in June 2007, Patella reported that staff access was severely limited. Only Anderson and Leto had access to his records, "an extreme departure from the previous open records environment which Tom promoted to us frequently,'' Patella told investigators.

Patella started to notice other things as well.

During the June 2007 Hurricane Expo, she saw Leto and Anderson leave in his vehicle. They were gone for two hours.

Later in the summer and into the fall, she noticed that Anderson started to wear Leto's extra-large brown sweater around the office every day, taking it home on weekends to wash.

"The staff collectively giggles at this since we are all issued jackets to wear in the event we are cold in the EOC (Emergency Operations Center),'' Patella reported.

As many as 10 times between Thanksgiving and Christmas, building custodian Paula Murphy told investigators, Leto and Anderson stayed late after work, "talking, giggling and socializing in Tom Leto's office'' — sometimes as late as 8 p.m., making it difficult for Murphy to complete her work.

Murphy's impression was that the two were having a "romantic relationship.''

During this time, Leto's wife, Marcia, told Pam Harris, emergency management planner, that there must be a lot of work to do in the office because her husband had been coming home late. On one particular day, she asked Harris to remind Leto to get home on time to baby­sit their infant.

Leto's wife filed for divorce four days after Anderson's arrest and details were revealed that Anderson had shopped at Nordstrom in Tampa, visited a Beverly Hills salon, bought groceries at the Crystal River Publix, visited a Pinellas County lounge and run other errands when she was reportedly working long days at Emergency Management.

Leto's cell phone records indicated that he was in the same general geographic area as Anderson on some of those occasions.

• • •

Last fall, Leto told Patella that a friend of his had just moved into her neighborhood. Patella believes he was setting up the story so she would not be surprised if she saw his car in the area.

In October, Patella noticed a light blue Mercedes-Benz at Anderson's home, a car she later confirmed as Leto's. At that time, Leto's calendar reflected that he was at a health care association meeting in Crystal River for two days. Later, Patella said, the reference on his calendar disappeared.

The car was there again in December, a fact that Leto explained in his interviews by saying that he was repairing a motorcycle for Anderson and left his car there when he was working on it.

Two days after that sighting, Anderson was to get a shock. She had divorced her husband, Keith, in September. He called her at work on the morning of Dec. 17. According to Patella's report, "Stephanie left work abruptly around 8:15 a.m. after telling Mark (Tobert), 'I think he just shot himself.' ''

According to Citrus County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Gail Tierney, Keith Anderson was found just outside his room at the Beverly Hills Motel, dead from a self-inflicted wound with a 9mm semiautomatic pistol.

"Apparently, he was on the telephone with his ex-wife, and he makes a statement that he has no reason to live anymore,'' Tierney said. "She hears a click and a loud boom.''

Stephanie Anderson tried to call her ex-husband back, but there was no answer. Inside the motel room, authorities found an open bottle of vodka but no suicide note.

Later, fellow Emergency Management staff members noted that Anderson didn't seem all that upset about her former husband in the days that followed. They also reported that she was listed as his wife in his obituary and was trying to get some of his property transferred into her name.

The sheriff's investigation revealed that Emergency Management staffers were also misled on occasions. For example, Leto reportedly told his staff in 2007 that they could not go to the annual national hurricane conference in New Orleans. But Anderson went with him, which his staff did not know.

An audit also noted that the only times Anderson didn't get overtime were weeks when someone other than Leto or Anderson was doing time sheets.

While Leto has said that he okayed Anderson's overtime so she could complete grant reviews and that he didn't know she wasn't working the hours, Patella told investigators that was not likely.

"(Patella) doesn't remember a time when anything was going on that (Leto) did not know about'' it, according to the sheriff's report. Patella concludes that for Leto to not know about the unworked overtime "indicates he is either incompetent or an accomplice.''

• • •

According to Tobert, Leto was adamant about his overtime policy. When Tobert put down extra hours on his time sheet, Leto would mark them out. Tobert said he ended up teaching classes on his own time and working the weekend Hurricane Expo on his own time.

"A year and a half goes by, and we found out that he's been paying Stephanie overtime the whole time,'' Tobert said. "We got p----- off, to put it bluntly, and we addressed it with him.''

Leto told his staff that he had also given overtime to Barbara Green, the employee who had been let go after he gave her duties to Anderson. Green was let go to reduce the budget, they were told.

"We know it was a baldfaced lie,'' Tobert said.

Leto was fired by County Administrator David Hamilton for his lack of oversight and his misrepresentation of his relationship with Anderson. He threatened to challenge the termination, but the deadline to do that ran out this month without a challenge.

With Leto and Anderson gone, Tobert said he and the other three core members of the staff — who have always done most of the work — have been able to focus on hurricane preparations.

"Our relationship has always been solid,'' he said.

Tobert is looking forward to Saturday's 2008 Hurricane Expo at Weeki Wachee Springs, the premier public outreach activity for Emergency Management, and participation in the statewide hurricane drill in early June.

He has expressed interest in becoming the next emergency management director, but Hamilton is exploring the idea of turning the department over to the sheriff. While those details are discussed and decisions made, Tobert said people should feel assured that his team is prepared.

"We're in good spirits," he said. "We will continue on and be ready for the hurricane season.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

Distrust followed new hire at Hernando County Emergency Management 05/24/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 26, 2008 11:18am]
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