Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the following correction: Jerry Terry filed a formal fraud complaint after retiring from the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office.
BROOKSVILLE — In January 2016, Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis signed a document that set his state retirement date as New Year’s Eve 2020.
At the time, Nienhuis was running for another term as sheriff. If reelected in 2016, his four-year term would conclude at the end of 2020. Then Nienhuis could begin collecting an estimated $113,000 per year in retirement benefits and have access to a roughly $600,000 retirement fund, according to state records.
Nienhuis won that 2016 race. Now, instead of retiring, the 56-year-old Nienhuis is seeking another term as sheriff. When asked by the Tampa Bay Times if he intended to serve all four years if re-elected, he said he would serve "several years.'’ Asked again, Nienhuis said, "My intention today is to serve at least one more term, but I certainly am not so presumptuous as to promise what the future holds.''
When James Terry, his political opponent, heard that Nienhuis planned to work past his retirement date, Terry figured he was planning to groom a replacement.
Terry said he believes that the sheriff plans "to use his incumbency and political connections to influence the appointment of his successor. The same way that he secured an appointment here.''
In 2017, Terry was Nienhuis’ third in command as major of operations. He accused the sheriff of hiding $1.3 million in revenue from the County Commission that was earned from housing federal inmates. Commissioners had previously been critical of the sheriff’s budget requests.
Terry said he was in a meeting where Nienhuis said that he wanted to intentionally keep commissioners out of the loop on the revenue and he questioned the Sheriff’s chief deputy afterwards. Several days later, he was suspended. Nienhuis said that Terry never questioned him about the money and that he was suspended over issues raised in memos by his coworkers.
Complaints in those memos, which were made public at the time, ranged from micromanagement to profanity to horseplay.
Terry retired and filed a formal fraud complaint with the Clerk of the Circuit Court over Nienhuis hiding of the money.
At a meeting Nienhuis did not attend, county commissioners voted unanimously to force the sheriff to turn over the money. Nienhuis did, characterizing the dispute as "an accounting issue that should have been handled by staff.''
By early 2018, Nienhuis began asking state retirement officials general questions about how someone could continue working past their pre-promised retirement date and still collect their retirement income.
Terry filed paperwork in July 2018 to run for sheriff. Several weeks later, Nienhuis pressed state retirement officials in his emails. He argued that his read on state law would allow a sheriff to volunteer for the job, thus breaking formal employment ties. Once ties were broken, he could collect his retirement benefits.
Nienhuis then filed his own paperwork to run for reelection.
For months afterward, Nienhuis argued his case to volunteer as sheriff, but ultimately the state said no. He could be a volunteer or he could take his sheriff’s salary if he were reelected, but he could not alter his previously approved retirement date, access his retirement accounts or benefits, and he could not collect any further accruals toward them. The current sheriff’s salary is $143,191.
Terry said he is worried that Nienhuis wants to run for another term with plans to quit before it is done and hand-pick a successor, a situation that mirrors how Nienhuis originally became sheriff. He was appointed by Governor Charlie Crist in 2010 to finish the term of former Sheriff Richard Nugent.
Nugent got a leg up and eventually was elected to the local seat in the U.S. House when then-congresswoman Ginny Brown-Waite dropped out at the last moment before qualifying ended in 2010. That move was strongly criticized at the time as Brown-Waite acting like she owned the seat, cutting voters out of the decision.
Nienhuis had been the undersheriff in Pasco County for 10 years and had political connections with Crist and then-state Sen. Mike Fasano. That appointment meant that the senior officer Nugent hoped would replace him from inside the sheriff’s office was passed over. Nienhuis, who had no experience in Hernando, took over.
Nienhuis said there is nothing nefarious about his decision to forgo his retirement benefits for a time and run again.
"I enjoy serving the citizens as Sheriff and, as evidenced by the fact I was willing to volunteer, money is not the sole, or even major, motivator for my career choice. It is disappointing that I was not allowed to volunteer, since it would have saved local taxpayers a considerable amount of money,'' Nienhuis said.
He also said that his wife is about to start a business. “She is going to be very occupied in that endeavor,” Nienhuis said. "Therefore, retirement is not practical for me and I have no desire to do any other job or hold any other elected position.''
Nienhuis also noted that he looks forward to another role if he wins reelection — serving as president for the Florida Sheriffs Association, which he is in line to do in the next couple of years. While he said he has several command staff members who might be capable of replacing him when he leaves office, he doesn’t know what the future holds for a replacement.
Terry said that the sheriff’s hope to serve in the state Sheriffs Association office is "an ego-driven personal goal that does nothing for the people of Hernando County.''
Nienhuis and Terry, both Republicans, are the only candidates for the job of sheriff. They will face off in the August 18 primary and all voters of all parties will be able to cast a ballot in the race.