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Sworn statements in lawsuit detail politics within Pasco Sheriff's Office

Fresh into his third term, Pasco Sheriff Bob White wasted little time jettisoning some of his top brass and lawyers. He told them the department was heading in a "different direction.''

Just a few weeks later, Chris Nocco came to New Port Richey to meet with White. Nocco, then 33, had six years of law enforcement experience, but his political connections ran deep. He worked for years under Marco Rubio, the House speaker and a rising star in the GOP. His wife was a top Republican fundraiser.

Nocco and White had been friends for a few years. The sheriff encouraged him to apply for one of the positions created after the election. Nocco and his wife met with White at a local restaurant for an interview. But they didn't really talk about the job.

"Honestly,'' Nocco said, "the big conversation is where to live, because we had only met with him for about an hour."

The job was his. In March 2009, Nocco became a captain overseeing several administrative areas of the office. A few months later, the six fired employees filed a federal complaint against the agency alleging age discrimination. They followed that complaint with a federal lawsuit, settled two weeks ago when Nocco — now sheriff — approved a $2 million insurance payout.

Sworn statements from the lawsuit obtained by the Times provide a glimpse into a major agency shake-up — hardball politics that followed a close-call election. They also include details about Nocco's meteoric rise through the office he now leads.

• • •

Bob White retired in March, saying he wanted to spend more time with his granddaughter. Gov. Rick Scott would have to appoint a successor.

Two weeks before Nocco got the call from the governor, he found himself across a table from Kendra Presswood, an attorney for the six plaintiffs. She interviewed him for about an hour, and many of the questions focused on his background: three years as a police officer in Fairfax County, Va., and much shorter stints as an intern with the Delaware state police, a school resource officer in Philadelphia and as a deputy with the Broward County Sheriff's Office. He quit that job after nine months, citing poor management by the sheriff.

Around that time he married his wife, Bridget. Through her political connections, she helped him get a job in 2004 as a Broward field director for President George W. Bush's re-election campaign. Then, he spent several years as a top staffer for then-House Speaker Rubio. When Rubio left the Legislature, Nocco took a job as chief of staff at the Florida Highway Patrol. He told Presswood he "oversaw operations" and reported directly to the agency's director for six months.

Then White called him.

He reported to the office that had been used by Capt. Sandra Reed, who had been with the department since 1973 before White fired her. She oversaw many of the divisions that were now under Nocco. Her name was still on many of the books in the room.

"I mean, when I first got here it was kind of eerie," Nocco said, explaining an awkward situation where longtime staffers had just left and he was coming on board. "I'd rather it be, 'Hi, I'm Chris Nocco, this is who I am, you know, I have a path and I don't want to talk about or go on anybody else's path.'"

In two daylong sessions in November that spanned nearly 16 hours, White gave his own interview. He defended the firings and praised Nocco as having a "high leadership quotient"

Presswood asked: "Wouldn't you say that almost all of your sergeants have more experience than that in law enforcement?"

White: "Many of them do, some of them don't I'm sure." He added: "There's some that said I wasn't qualified to be sheriff, and I'm in my third term."

Presswood asked if the decision hurt morale.

"I think initially, I'm sure there was some pause," White said. "I don't so much think that's particularly the case anymore. I think they've embraced him wholeheartedly."

• • •

The heart of the lawsuit's claim is that White discriminated against the six employees because of their age. All were 56 or older when they were fired.

Five were let go in brief one-on-one meetings with Col. Al Nienhuis, the agency's second in command who in December was appointed Hernando County sheriff. Nienhuis told the employees only that the office was "going in a different direction."

The sixth employee, Capt. Jim Driscoll, was different. Demoted to sergeant by former Sheriff Lee Cannon, White brought him on as a captain shortly after his first election in 2000. The two were friends, and White wanted to break the news to him personally. They met in White's truck outside a Village Inn in Dade City.

White disbanded Driscoll's tactical operations group and scattered the deputies in various road patrols. He said he suggested that Driscoll take over an administrative job vacated by another fired employee. He refused. White said he then asked Driscoll to consider retirement. "I need you to retire," he said.

Driscoll slammed the door to White's truck. They haven't spoken since. "It was the hardest thing I've done since I've been sheriff," he said.

Under questioning by Presswood, White also addressed the firing of Capt. Skip Stone.

White cruised to victory in his first two campaigns, but in 2008 he barely held off former sheriff's Capt. Kim Bogart, a Democrat. White lost much of the support he had previously enjoyed on Pasco's west side. Stone oversaw operations in that area of the county.

During the election, White said, a handful of sergeants "intimidated" deputies into opposing the sheriff. Union members were picketing. One billboard read, "Support your deputies, the sheriff won't." Dissension among the deputies translated to a loss of public support, White said. That led to a loss of votes.

Stone, a former union official, "just didn't make our case for us to those deputies and to those supervisors," White said.

Presswood: "Are you telling me that Mr. Stone, one of his responsibilities was to try to get deputies and their supervisors to support you in the election?"

White: "No, that's not what I'm saying. I wanted him to make our case for us. That's what he's supposed to do on the ground. … I'm not saying to support me for sheriff. I'm talking about leading our troops in a positive manner."

Near the end of the interview, Presswood asked, "Is it possible the problem was really with you and not the captains? Is it possible that deputies ran against you because they don't like you?"

White: "No. … I work too hard. I care too much for them. I did everything I can to build them up and create a great work environment for them."

Stone and the other members of the command staff should have known their jobs were in jeopardy, White said. They signed affidavits saying they worked at the pleasure of the sheriff. It's common practice, he said, for a sheriff to evaluate his administration after a new term. Being on his command staff "meant complete and total loyalty."

• • •

As part of the lawsuit, Presswood also took a sworn deposition from Richard Corcoran, now a powerful state representative.

Corcoran and White had been friends for several years. Shortly after the 2008 election but before White dismissed his top lawyers, Mary Anne Burke and Michael Randall, White offered him the job as general counsel. Corcoran said he declined, agreeing instead to do contract legal work. He recommended Jeremiah Hawkes.

Corcoran, Hawkes and Nocco worked together as legislative staffers under Rubio, now a U.S. senator. Corcoran was the chief of staff. Nocco was a staff director, then deputy chief of staff. Hawkes, son of Tallahassee appeals court judge Paul Hawkes, was Rubio's general counsel.

Corcoran said he originally introduced White to Nocco but downplayed any role in Nocco's hiring at the sheriff's office.

White thought Burke and Randall were not aggressive enough toward problem staffers and "were always on the side of the employees," Corcoran testified.

As outside counsel, Corcoran now handles most of the office's employment disputes. He handled several cases before the Career Service Board early in his tenure, but said employees "rarely fight anymore" after being fired.

• • •

Nocco has indicated he intends to seek re-election next fall. He can expect more questions from opponents about the political nature of his appointment — much like one posed to White during his deposition: Were the new hires brought on because of political ties?

"Well, I don't know that I would say political ties," White replied. "I would say they are tied to me, yes. I think it's arguable that probably everything, everyone I know and everyone that I see every day is through politics. I don't know how to separate that."

Staff writer Jamie Klein contributed to this report. Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.

Sworn statements in lawsuit detail politics within Pasco Sheriff's Office 08/06/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 6, 2011 1:27pm]
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