Pinellas sheriff fires 4, suspends 2 for loafing on the job

LARGO — Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri fired a sergeant and three deputies and suspended two other deputies Monday for "extreme loafing and idling,'' saying their laziness cheated taxpayers and endangered the public.

The men, all members of a north county patrol squad, sometimes would park their cruisers for hours at a time without working, the sheriff said. Sometimes they would hide behind a school or church. Sometimes they would visit relatives or go home.

All while they were supposed to be protecting the streets on their midnight shift, said the sheriff.

Some intentionally disconnected their GPS trackers, he said. They responded to calls if dispatched — there was no indication that any specific crimes went unaddressed — but didn't patrol or initiate law enforcement work for hours at a time.

"These deputies by their intentional actions essentially cheated the taxpayers out of well over $24,600" during the last six months of 2011, said Gualtieri.

The dollar figure was calculated by multiplying the hours spent idle by the officers' rate of pay. All told, the three fired deputies were slacking for the equivalent of 105 eight-hour workdays, according to the sheriff.

"We believe our findings are a snapshot of what was going on for a longer period of time."

Those fired were Deputy Kenneth L. Burroughs, 42; Deputy Robert G. Harmer, 42; Deputy Samuel Mitchem, 42; and Sgt. Christopher W. Metro, 43. A one-day suspension went to Deputy Brian T. Clark, 40; and a 2-day suspension went to Deputy Robert J. Wojciechowski, 46.

Collectively, the four fired officers had 77 years of experience.

Lt. Kevin Bennett retired rather than face inquiry about his failure to supervise others, Gualtieri said.

Burroughs declined to comment, but his attorney, Tarpon Springs lawyer Jerry Theophilopoulos, said the terminations were improper and he planned an appeal. He said the Sheriff's Office didn't examine computer records that would have shown his client was working properly.

"The truth will come out in the end," said Theophilopoulos. "This is politically motivated, and it's nothing more than a ploy to divert attention and present the public with a facade that the administration is cleaning up a scandal-ridden department."

Other officers who were disciplined and Bennett could not be reached.

Tuesday's announcement comes as Gualtieri faces mounting pressure over the conduct of his narcotics unit, and the ability of his internal affairs department to police its own. Numerous drug charges have been dropped since deputies' questionable evidence-gathering tactics came to light.

Gualtieri also is in a battle to keep his job, with former Sheriff Everett Rice challenging him in the upcoming election.

Gualtieri said he heard allegations about loafing last fall and had his staff cross-check officer locations, as determined by the GPS systems in their cruisers. Some were found to be sitting idle for as long as six hours, often in locations where the public could not easily spot them.

Harmer, Burroughs and Mitchem sometimes met behind All Saints Catholic Church on Curlew Road, Dick Norris Chevrolet on U.S. 19, and Palm Harbor Middle School, Gualtieri said.

On one occasion, Harmer was on contract to patrol the city of Dunedin but disconnected his GPS and met two colleagues in an Oldsmar park.

Reports that deputies were watching movies on laptops could not be substantiated, the sheriff said.

The three fired deputies each piled up 100 to 300 hours of inactivity over six months, Gualtieri said. And that counts only time where they remained in one location for at least an hour with no satisfactory explanation.

Metro was cited for some idling of his own but also for failure to supervise deputies on his watch, Gualtieri said.

Among other things, Gualtieri said, statistical reports of low performance should have been a warning flag. For example, in one five-week period, Harmer wrote 11 reports, issued six traffic tickets and six warnings, and stopped two citizens for questioning — while idling a total of 58 hours.

Metro and Lt. Bennett should have noticed the low numbers and paid closer attention to live GPS mobile maps that pinpoint deputy locations, Gualtieri said.

The north county district is supervised by Capt. Bill Hagans, who also had access to statistical reports and mobile maps. He, too, should have spotted the problem "and I will talk to him,'' Gualtieri said.

Hagans was not disciplined because he relied on other officers under him for hands-on supervision, Gualtieri said.

The sergeant and deputies who were fired had satisfactory evaluations with no mention of loafing or idling, Gualtieri said.

Metro, for example, "is a veteran who has developed sound judgment,'' wrote his supervisor in 2010, during Metro's last evaluation.

Contact Stephen Nohlgren at snohlgren@tampabay.com

Pinellas sheriff fires 4, suspends 2 for loafing on the job 05/01/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 8:49pm]

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