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Politics infiltrate Sheriff's Office

Two would-be sheriffs working in the same department spells tension.

In theory, politics should remain out of the day-to-day operations of the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.

Putting that theory into practice over the next two months, however, may be a difficult task, many within the department think.

With their convincing victories in Tuesday's primary election, Sgt. Eddie McConnell, a Democrat, and Maj. Richard Nugent, a Republican, move on to the Nov. 7 election, where both will meet no-party candidate Michael Robinson.

The race could well be one of the most hotly contested on the November ballot.

Each candidate will be vying to succeed retiring Sheriff Thomas Mylander, who acknowledges that it will be tough to separate work and politics at the Sheriff's Office over the next several weeks, as much as people might try.

"We try to make people feel insulated from that, make them feel comfortable," Mylander said after Tuesday's election, "But as the season goes on, politics is politics."

Because of a recent change in state law, sheriff's employees who are seeking office do not have to resign or take a leave of absence. That means McConnell and Nugent continue to work together _ and campaign against each other.

For both, the stakes are high.

Professionally, both men have strong, and differing, stances on several issues and on the management style that is needed to keep the Sheriff's Office growing with Hernando's burgeoning population. Personally, the race already has brought up the question of department loyalties, as well as the strong possibility that if either McConnell or Nugent wins, the other may have to, or at least want to, leave.

It's enough to make the current sheriff weary of the weeks to come. He has stated outright that he does not think the internal competition is the best situation for the Sheriff's Office.

When Mylander first ran for sheriff in 1984, he recalls, he took a leave of absence from the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. Maybe that's the way it still should be, he muses.

"I always thought it was proper. And I think it's better for the agency. That way when they are in the building, there's not all the tensions," Mylander said.

He added, however, that he has not asked Nugent or McConnell to leave voluntarily.

"That wouldn't be fair," Mylander said. "They still have families to raise, and it would be a big financial burden."

Instead, Mylander says he has tried to keep the agency focused on business, making it clear that politics and political pressure are not to be tolerated. Campaigning is to be done strictly on a person's free time, he said, adding that he is monitoring job assignments closely to make sure no one is falling behind in their duties. He also said he would hope that if anyone had specific concerns, they would come to him.

"You can't stop locker-room talk, but if it flows into the job, we'll address it," Mylander said.

McConnell says he finds such statements ironic. Mylander says he wants no politics, yet at every opportunity he has publicly endorsed Nugent as his favored candidate, McConnell said.

"I was surprised that the sheriff endorsed a particular person," he said. "Now I have people (who work at the Sheriff's Office) tell me, "I'd like to help you, but I'm worried about my job.' "

In comparing the campaign contributions made to both candidates from January through August, the Times was able to identify at least $1,900 in support of Nugent that has come from about 30 employees of the Sheriff's Office or their family members. McConnell has received about $700 from a pool of about 10 such individuals.

Family members were identified by checking similar last names of donors against a complete list of sheriff's employees and then checking driver's license information to find matching addresses. The number of relatives contributing to either campaign could be greater than the Times found.

Of the sheriff's employees who donated to Nugent, many were high-ranking captains, sergeants and majors. Although McConnell did have some officers among his contributors, crossing guards were the most common sheriff's employees to give to his campaign.

McConnell, who estimates that employees in the Sheriff's Office are about evenly split in their support of him and Nugent, said fear of reprisal might explain any discrepancy in his financial support, compared with that of Nugent.

Mylander, who defends his right to endorse a candidate after spending 16 years building an agency of which he is proud, said that any officer can give money to whomever he or she likes. He added that if McConnell isn't getting the contributions he expected, that is most likely a reflection of his level of support.

As for McConnell's belief that people are worried about publicly supporting him because of possible reprisals, both Nugent and Mylander said that is silly. Law prohibits political retaliation, they point out, and a separate law makes it impossible for the new sheriff to fire or demote any employee at the rank of lieutenant or lower.

Robinson, the no-party challenger, disagrees. He argues that the new law is laughable because the new sheriff can simply concoct a valid-sounding excuse to fire someone and, if the employee disagrees and asks for a review, the ultimate call still would be made by the sheriff.

Also, anyone above the rank of lieutenant can still legally lose his or her position. Many of Nugent's supporters are in that category.

Robinson, a registered Democrat whose wife is County Commissioner Nancy Robinson, said the reason he is running without party affiliation is to emphasize that, as sheriff, he would not fire or hire based on politics or party preferences.

Deputy Steve Klapka, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, said he doesn't think rank-and-file employees at the Sheriff's Office are worried about being fired.

"But that does not mean that Steve Klapka, who works in traffic, can't be moved back to patrol," Klapka said, adding that the FOP would keep any eye out for any creative, lateral transfers. "Not that I think either (Robinson), Rich Nugent or Eddie McConnell would do that. These guys are professional enough that they would not allow that."

Professional or not, the strain is getting to McConnell, who said he is considering asking for an extended amount of vacation time during the campaign, for the good of the office.

"Any time you have stress and tension like this in a department, it's not the best situation in the world," said McConnell. "I'm considering taking the time off for two reasons: for my campaign and for the sake of the agency."

McConnell added that since he announced he was running for sheriff, he has felt increasingly uncomfortable in the Sheriff's Office, although he stresses it is only a feeling and that no one has done anything improper.

"Do I feel uncomfortable in certain areas? I do. Unwanted? Absolutely," he said. "There is less communication, less friendly acknowledgment."

Nugent, in contrast, says he will only be taking off a few days through the campaign season. He said taking an extended leave would be too much of a financial burden on his family.

Nugent has backed off some of his job duties, though not by choice.

He no longer oversees operation and patrol services, a move that was made grudgingly by Mylander after the sheriff learned that federal law prohibits anyone who oversees employees paid with federal grant money from seeking office. The law was designed to keep bosses from pressuring their employees to help with their campaigns. So Nugent has been concentrating on the detective division, the vice section and the forensics unit.

Meanwhile, Nugent said he has bent over backward to make sure no one within the department feels that just because Mylander supports him, they have to, too.

"My job is to make sure that nothing is done to add any pressure . . . because I've been there before," Nugent said. "No one has to fear."