Last November, Anthony Mazza lost his job as a deputy with the Hernando County Sheriff's Office after he gave prominent lawyer and former state Sen. Joseph Johnston Jr. a black eye and a fractured rib during a traffic stop.
On Wednesday, however, a Citizens Advisory Board recommended that Sheriff Richard Nugent give Mazza back his job.
Members of the Career Service Appeals Board felt the internal investigation of the matter by the Sheriff's Office did not put enough weight on Mazza's exemplary record, including two commendations and glowing evaluations since he was hired two years ago.
In a 4-1 decision, the volunteer board issued a finding of fact that Mazza did not violate the Sheriff's Office policy regarding the use of excessive force. Its formal suggestion to Nugent will be to reinstate Mazza as a deputy sheriff with several conditions: a 30-day suspension, remedial training in defensive tactics, an anger management course and three-month probationary period. The board made no recommendation on whether Mazza should receive back pay.
During his closing remarks, Keith Tischler, the lawyer for the Sheriff's Office, reminded the board that it was not the board's role to determine if the sheriff's policies meet with their approval, only to consider the investigation against Mazza and weigh the evidence against department policy.
Despite Johnston's behavior during the traffic stop, the deputy is held to a higher standard, Tischler told the board.
"He is paid to put up with a lot of garbage."
Mazza's attorney, Andrew Salzman, said his client's record is more than germane.
"You can't say it isn't important. It's why you're here," he told the board. "You need to look at the individual you are dealing with."
In the end, Salzman's argument for salvaging Mazza's career seemed to reverberate with board members.
"You're being asked to throw away his career, and I think that's wrong," he said. "Don't waste this man's career on one incident."
Board member Vincent DeMatteo, a former lieutenant and 26-year veteran police officer in New Jersey, agreed that Mazza overreacted.
"But dismissal appears excessive, as this officer thought he was doing his duty," he said.
The sole dissenting member of the board was chairman Mark Taylor, who told Mazza he does not trust his judgment and would worry if his own son were stopped by him.
"Every time he made a decision, it was a bad one," said the former county Planning and Zoning Commission chairman. "And eventually, we were so far in the valley we couldn't get out."
Johnston did not return calls from the Times seeking comment, but his son Darryl, who is also an attorney, said that his father may consider civil action against the Sheriff's Office.
"I think it's a sad day for the county," he said. "Certainly, (Mazza) lacked judgment in this instance."
Mazza, 35, who hugged his girlfriend and board member Walter Dry after the hearing, declined to comment on the decision.
In October, Mazza 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 the deputy forced him to the ground.
Mazza's case 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. Two members are chosen by the sheriff; two others are elected by sheriff's employees at the rank of lieutenant and lower; a fifth is selected by the other four board members.
Members include Taylor; Dry, president of the Human Rights Coalition of Hernando County; James Greco, a retired deputy sheriff from Illinois; and Carolyn Peeler, a former human resources director for a Tarpon Springs psychiatric hospital.
Nugent did not comment Wednesday after the board's action, but has said previously that he would abide by its decision.