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Board weighs deputy's firing

An advisory board for the Hernando County Sheriff's Office heard testimony Tuesday in the case of former Deputy Anthony Mazza, fired after he gave a prominent Brooksville lawyer a black eye and a fractured rib during a traffic stop.

The Career Service Appeals Board will advise Sheriff Richard Nugent whether it believes Mazza should have lost his job after he arrested Joseph E. Johnston Jr., a 79-year-old former School Board attorney and the father of Brooksville City Council member Joe Johnston III.

In October, Mazza, 35, a former corrections officer who was hired by the Sheriff's Office in March 2000, was working an off-duty detail for St. Anthony Catholic Church on the State Road 50 bypass in Brooksville. He was paid by the church to direct Sunday morning traffic.

Mazza said Johnston ignored him when asked to stop, so Mazza jumped into his patrol car and stopped Johnston's silver Mercedes a short distance away. Mazza said Johnston became belligerent and that he was forced to subdue him.

Johnston and other witnesses said Mazza threw Johnston on the ground and assaulted him. Nugent's decision to fire Mazza came after a two-week investigation.

Keith Tischler, the lawyer for the Sheriff's Office, said Mazza violated department policy by using excessive force. Rather than leaving his assignment at the church, Mazza should have taken Johnston's license plate number or let him go.

"We see a chain of events that illustrate an escalation of this battle of wills," Tischler said. "This is where we see the choices that Mazza made to be flawed."

The board heard from both Mazza and Johnston, and they gave largely differing accounts of the events that led up to the confrontation. The former deputy painted Johnston as hostile. Johnston said Mazza used excessive force.

"Boy, I'm telling you, all hades broke loose after that," said Johnston, testifying how Mazza threw him to the ground.

There was some discussion over whether Johnston rolled up his sleeves in a threatening manner _ something Mazza claimed at the hearing, but never mentioned to internal affairs investigators.

"Only two people know exactly what happened out there _ Mr. Mazza and Mr. Johnston," said Andrew Salzman, Mazza's attorney.

Mazza said department regulations and standard operating procedures are not black and white.

"We are trained to use our judgment in the way we apply these standards," he said. "I wear a badge, but I am a human being."

Chief Deputy Michael Hensley, second in command after Nugent, said he agreed with the sheriff's decision to dismiss Mazza, based on the findings of an internal investigation. The issue, he said, was one of judgment.

"The deputy elected to leave that post, leaving some degree of jeopardy for people leaving the (church) parking lot," he said. "Mr. Johnston did not react appropriately, but I did not see the necessity for (Mazza) to engage him physically, causing the escalation that resulted in Mr. Johnston's injuries."

The clencher, Hensley said, was Mazza's statement to investigators that he would follow the same course of action if the situation arose again.

"That really concerned us," Hensley said.

Although it came too late for consideration by the sheriff, Mazza told the board Tuesday that he has had a change of heart.

"'I know if I'd have (made different choices) none of us would be sitting here and I'd still have my job. I'd still have my career," Mazza said.

Tuesday marked the first hearing for the volunteer board, created after former Sheriff Tom Mylander asked the state Legislature in 2000 to pass a bill that gave employees the ability to appeal disciplinary action.

Despite Johnston's prominence in Brooksville, sheriff's officials all claimed Tuesday they felt no political pressure to punish Mazza.

The board will meet again today and plans to render a recommendation for Nugent by the end of the day. Sheriff's officials say the sheriff has publicly said he will abide by whatever decision the board reaches.