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Sheriff agrees to rehire fired deputy

Four months after firing Deputy Tony Mazza for using excessive force, Sheriff Richard Nugent said Thursday that he would rehire him.

His decision came a day after a volunteer panel recommended that Mazza be given his job back.

"With personal reservation but professional resolve, I will offer reinstatement to Deputy Mazza with several restrictive conditions," Nugent said in a written statement.

Mazza could not be reached to discuss whether he found Nugent's conditions _ a psychological exam, an anger management course and no back pay _ acceptable, and whether he would reclaim his job.

Nugent fired Mazza, 35, after he gave a 79-year-old former state senator, Joseph Johnston Jr. of Brooksville, a black eye and fractured rib during a traffic stop on Oct. 28.

Johnston, a former longtime attorney for the Hernando County School Board, did not return calls from the Times seeking comment Thursday.

On that October morning, Mazza left his off-duty assignment directing church traffic in Brooksville and chased Johnston's silver Mercedes because he did not stop when ordered. The two men argued, and Mazza threw Johnston on the ground.

After seeing pictures of Johnston's black eye and bruises, Nugent fired Mazza, saying: "That is not the way my deputies should handle the elderly or anyone. I will not tolerate it."

On Thursday, Nugent said he believed his decision to fire Mazza was appropriate because Mazza said at the time that he did nothing wrong and would handle future situations the same. Mazza later said he should have acted differently.

Mazza appealled his firing to the Career Service Appeals Board, a group of five citizens who heard testimony in the case this week. They voted 4-1 Wednesday that Nugent should reinstate Mazza, saying he did not violate the department's excessive force policy and that firing him was too harsh.

The only dissenting member said he believed Mazza had poor judgment and that he would not feel safe with Mazza stopping one of his family members.

Nugent would not discuss his decision Thursday.

He issued a news release saying that Mazza can have his job back if he completes an anger management course and updates his defensive tactics training. Mazza also would not receive any pay for his absence and would be on probation for a year.

Nugent mostly followed the board's recommendations, although he extended their suggested probationary period from three to 12 months.

In his statement, Nugent said he still believes Mazza dealt inappropriately with Johnston. He said he is "cautiously optimistic" that the experience has taught Mazza something.

This was the first hearing conducted by the board, created after former Sheriff Tom Mylander in 2000 asked the state Legislature to pass a bill that gave employees the ability to appeal disciplinary action. Members included a real estate investor, retired police officers and a human resource officer.

Mazza, a former corrections officer, was hired by the Sheriff's Office in March 2000.

Mazza's attorney did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.

_ Jamie Jones covers law enforcement and courts in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6114. Send e-mail to jjonessptimes.com.

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