Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

FDLE wraps up inquiry into captain's e-mail

(ran WEST, BEACH editions)

A months-long investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found no evidence that the police department's second-in-command violated public records laws.

But Capt. Joe Cornish, the only high-ranking officer who kept his job during a summer shakeup, behaved in a way that could return divisiveness to the department, Interim Police Manager Bob Babineau told Cornish in a memo.

With the FDLE investigation complete and the city prepared to hire a new chief, the department's power struggle could be a thing of the past. But Babineau cautioned Cornish that talking with subordinates about the ongoing investigation could "affect morale" and "spread inaccurate information."

Such behavior "could be construed as an attempt to get the story straight or exert undue pressure for the subordinate to have a selective memory."

"As is aptly demonstrated by the circumstances surrounding this investigation, divisiveness within the management of the department has far-reaching adverse consequences," Babineau wrote. "As a supervisory officer in this department, you are expected not only to refrain from fostering such conditions, as detailed above, but also to eliminate such conditions when you see them occurring with your subordinate personnel.

"In short, this department can only function at its best when all the employees operate as a team."

Teamwork hasn't been the department's best quality the past few years, while Cornish and former Capt. Todd Kirchgraber shared second-in-command duties and reported to Chief Ray Kaminskas. The two captains' divergent management styles and personal disagreements led rank-and-file officers to choose sides, deepening the rift.

Kirchgraber resigned in May during an investigation into whether he created a hostile work environment. Between Kirchgraber's exit and Kaminskas' resignation in July, four other officers submitted their resignations. One of them came back, City Manager Mike Bonfield said, only to return briefly and quit again.

The FDLE investigation was prompted by Kirchgraber's allegations that Cornish failed to comply with a public records request Kirchgraber submitted shortly before his resignation.

Cornish had no comment on the investigation, saying it "speaks for itself." But he did say the department is more cohesive now than it has been in recent years, and that situation will only improve when the new police chief starts within the next few weeks.

"As soon as we get a new chief on board, things are going to be fine," Cornish said.

Cornish, a candidate for police chief the last time the job was available, said he decided not to apply this time because he didn't want his application to be a "lightning rod" for divisiveness.

"My name has been in the paper on a number of occasions associated with all of this business, so I don't think I would have," he said. "With the investigation going on, that kind of sealed it, of course. I think I can best serve the community in my current position."

Through his attorney Brandon Vesely, Kirchgraber requested all e-mails in the files of Cornish and another officer, Chris Centofanti, a police union leader. After the officers turned over the e-mails, Kirchgraber and Vesely met with Bonfield to show him other e-mails in Kirchgraber's possession that Cornish should have turned over but didn't. They did not allow Bonfield to make copies, the report states.

Kirchgraber was described by several officers in the investigation as the department's "computer guy," and he had all officers' e-mail passwords.

When Kirchgraber met with FDLE investigators, however, he did not turn over his copies of the Cornish e-mails. Without those, the FDLE investigation fell flat.

Through his lawyer, Vesely, Kirchgraber would offer little explanation for why he did not provide FDLE with copies of the Cornish e-mails. According to the investigative report, Kirchgraber no longer had the e-mails when he met with FDLE.

Kirchgraber is now employed at St. Petersburg College, where he coordinates a law enforcement program.

"He really just doesn't want to make any comment at all about what happened to those e-mails," Vesely said of Kirchgraber. "He has no interest in pursuing anything."

While the investigation found no evidence that Cornish violated the public records law, it did provide information about the department's inner workings:

Kaminskas, suspecting that Kirchgraber already had copies of the e-mails he was requesting, instructed both Cornish and Centofanti not to "screw around" when providing copies of their e-mails.

In trying to meet the records request, city officials realized that e-mails deleted by personnel are kept on backup for only two months, then erased permanently. The city attorney is now reviewing ways to comply with the law to ensure that all public files are retained for the amount of time specified in Florida statutes.

An employee overheard Cornish talking about the investigation in his office with a city commissioner, who is not named in the investigation. The report states that administrative assistant Gail Walker heard someone say, "Phase One didn't work, Kaminskas screwed it up, but Phase Two will be used to get Kaminskas also" and that Cornish would then run the department.

Cornish was interim police chief while the city was looking for a new chief four years ago. Cornish was a candidate for the job, but Kaminskas got the position.

Cornish said he does not recall the specific conversation mentioned in the investigation, but believes he talked to almost all city commissioners during the course of the investigation.

Bonfield said he is not concerned if a commissioner met personally with Cornish, even though commissioners are not supposed to get involved in personnel issues. Bonfield pointed out that those lines were crossed more than a year ago because employees, dissatisfied with City Manager Carl Schwing, went to commissioners for help. That situation led to Schwing's resignation.

"I don't really know the circumstances of how that conversation came about," Bonfield said. "I can only tell you that I've had discussions with commissioners about these kinds of issues, and they have all been very understanding about their role in personnel issues."