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Police chief rejects captain's resignation

Once a stalwart in the Pinellas Park Police Department, Capt. Robert Hempel is under investigation.

Police Capt. Robert Hempel, under a sheriff's investigation for allegations that he used his private computer on city time and city business, tried to quit last week but was prevented when the police chief refused to accept his resignation.

"I do not accept your letter of resignation," Pinellas Park police Chief Dorene Thomas wrote in a March 16 letter to Hempel.

"The offer of resignation was only contingent upon your entering into an agreement with the city which was forwarded to your attorney this morning and which you did not execute.

"Therefore, your tender of resignation is rejected," Thomas wrote.

Thomas then ordered Hempel to appear for "an investigation." If Hempel refuses to do so, Thomas said his failure to appear would result in his "termination from city employment for insubordination."

Much of the text of the copy of Thomas' letter released to the public has been blacked out to protect information that is still under investigation, but the remainder of the document shows that Hempel apparently has asked that other meetings be postponed.

Thomas told Hempel that a meeting had been delayed long enough.

"I expect you to report," she wrote.

Thomas said she's unsure of Hempel's status and is waiting for the city's attorneys to work that out.

In the meantime, Hempel, who has been on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the sheriff's investigation, still has his gun, badge and city car.

"It's not that he hasn't been willing to (turn them over)," Thomas said. "It's just trying to get together to effect (the turnover)."

Kathryn Schoen, a St. Petersburg attorney, represents Hempel and has filed a lawsuit on his behalf for the return of his personal computer. She declined to comment about the issues surrounding Hempel's attempted resignation.

Hempel's predicament would have been unthinkable a year and a half ago when he was the department's second in command and widely seen as the heir apparent to then-police Chief David Milchan.

But as problems in the department have mounted, Hempel's star has fallen.

In January 2000, an anonymous caller to the city's Meet Your Mayor and Council television show assailed the mayor because he had failed to do anything about an officer who had been accused of beating his wife.

The Pinellas County sheriff investigated allegations that Hempel had hit his wife, but no charges were ever filed and both Hempels have repeatedly denied that he ever struck her.

By July, two officers had filed grievances alleging they were victims of a "hit list" of officers targeted for dismissal based on their ages and willingness to speak out. A subsequent investigation revealed no written hit list, but blamed statements made by Hempel for the perception that such a list existed.

Hempel also took a drubbing from officers in a survey about employee morale. Hempel and Capt. Mike Vetter were seen as stumbling blocks to change and improvement. Vetter has since retired.

In February, Hempel was put on paid administrative leave while the sheriff investigates allegations that he used his private computer on city time and on city business.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha said Tuesday that investigation is wrapping up and the department's conclusions could soon be forwarded to Pinellas Park.