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STAFFER BROKE COUNTY RULES

Asecretary should have made a report to the county, not the media, a panel says.

By taking her accusation that her boss struck her to the media, rather than following county protocol, former county human resources secretary Josephine DiViccaro violated county policy.

That was the finding of the Hernando County Personnel Advisory Committee on Wednesday. After a four-hour hearing, it rejected DiViccaro's challenge that she was wrongly terminated from the job she had held for nearly 10 years.

DiVicarro was fired in February for violating county personnel policy forbidding the defamation or discrediting of the county or undermining its efficiency or the reputation of fellow employees.

She accused Cheryl Marsden, her direct supervisor and the director of Administrative Services, of striking her with some papers while directing her to get to work rather than read a newspaper.

DiVicarro mentioned the incident to several other county employees that day but did not ask for action to take place. She also didn't go to County Administrator David Hamilton, who would have been the proper person under county policy to report the incident.

During the hearing, Hamilton testified that DiViccaro's decision to announce the unsubstantiated complaint to the media undermined and discredited the county while not giving the county the chance to investigate the allegation.

He said that the county must maintain integrity and credibility and that the public trust placed in county employees by the taxpayers holds them to a higher standard. Not reacting with a swift discipline in the case would have created an "open season'' on unfounded criticisms of county workers, Hamilton said.

Marsden went further, saying that the news stories about the incident would be a blot on her name forever.

The damage was intensified, she said, because Hernando Today did not include her side of the story. Marsden said the only attempt the newspaper made to get her comments came through a phone call from a reporter to her work station on Saturday, when the office is known to be closed.

"This totally defamed me. It's going to be on my record for the rest of my life,'' Marsden said.

Other employees in human resources testified that when DiViccaro made her original claim, they didn't take it seriously. She didn't ask for anyone to act to take the complaint further. And co-workers who knew her for years said they thought it was just another instance of DiViccaro exaggerating or over-reacting to something.

DiViccaro's attorney Matt Fenton attempted to show that DiViccaro's version of the alleged battery by Marsden could not be confirmed only because there were no witnesses. DiViccaro stood staunchly behind her original story about the incident.

While sorting newspapers at her desk in early February, "next thing I know, wham. I look up and it's Cheryl,'' she said. "She had papers in her hand.'' While she was not hurt, DiViccaro said, "I was angered, shocked.''

Human resources employees who were told of the instance did not act on it, which was why DiViccaro said she believed that no one was going to help her. That prompted the calls to law enforcement and the media, she said.

"There were alternatives to going to the media,'' personnel board member Paul Wieczorek said. "The choice was made willfully to do that.''

The board voted 3-0 that the county was justified in terminating DiViccaro.

DiViccaro has also been denied unemployment compensation because the firing was for cause.

When the hearing was over, DiViccaro said she wasn't sure what was next. Of Marsden's claims, DiViccaro said, "She lied. She lied and got away with it.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

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