Hernando sheriff wants new policy on office romance

BROOKSVILLE — An internal investigation that led to the resignation of a veteran sergeant has prompted Sheriff Richard Nugent to push for a new departmental policy that would bar romances between supervisors and other employees at the Sheriff's Office.

Nugent said the policy is a direct response to the investigation into the conduct of Sgt. Donnie Smith, who was accused of battering a former girlfriend in late May, lying to investigators during his testimony about the case and carrying on a romantic relationship with a deputy who he had supervised.

"It's a shame that you have to legislate common sense," Nugent said Friday. "But obviously, we do."

According to documents released Friday, the internal investigation proved that Smith violated the officers code of conduct and his supervisory responsibility. However, Smith avoided punishment in the case because he resigned Wednesday, two days after he was reportedly involved in an unrelated verbal altercation with the boyfriend of his ex-wife at her home; he faces no charges in that incident.

Smith, 40, had worked at the Sheriff's Office since August 1998.

"It is with deep sorrow and regret that I submit my letter of resignation," Smith wrote in a letter to Nugent and other Sheriff's Office colleagues. "I have enjoyed my 10 years of employment; have had many enjoyable adventures and many good memories."

In a related internal investigation, Deputy Cari Grasso was suspended for three days and had her probation extended for six months for conduct unbecoming an officer. Grasso was accused of leaving her shift early June 17 to see Smith at his home in northern Hernando County, where her supervisor and another deputy witnessed her and Smith "engaged in romantic embraces and kissing while standing outside of his residence," according to the report.

Grasso, 29, will end her probation in February; it had been set to conclude in August.

Nugent said the new fraternization policy would be implemented within a couple of weeks, pending some last-minute tweaks and a review by the deputies union.

"You can't cover everything," Nugent said. "But we have to take a proactive approach when dealing with people who act in an unethical manner at the Sheriff's Office. As far as I know, this had not been an issue in the past."

The trouble all started on the evening of May 31 or early on the morning of June 1 at Jersey's Hometown Tavern, at 4598 Commercial Way in Spring Hill.

According to sheriff's reports, Smith's former girlfriend, who worked as a Sheriff's Office communications employee earlier this year, said that Smith hit her in her mouth, pulled out a clump of her hair and broke her cell phone after an argument in the bar. The accuser had become upset when she saw Smith "placing his hands on and groping" Grasso in the bar, according to the report.

Smith denied those allegations, or that he had ever hit the woman during their relationship, which started in August 2007.

After the former girlfriend's accusations and an investigation by the Sheriff's Office, the case was forwarded to the State Attorney's Office in Citrus County, which Assistant State Attorney Richard Buxman said was done to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

On July 9, the State Attorney's Office informed the Sheriff's Office that no criminal charges would be filed in the case. That kicked off the internal investigation.

Investigators found that "the preponderance of evidence indicates that some type of altercation occurred" and "Smith was obviously in a relationship that was ending and used poor judgment regarding his personal issues with this individual."

Smith couldn't immediately be reached for comment Friday.

Joel Anderson can be reached at joelanderson@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6120.

Hernando sheriff wants new policy on office romance 09/05/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 10, 2008 11:11am]

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