You need ‘the skin of an alligator’: How Hernando County’s warring factions sunk another administrator

Len Sossamon
Len Sossamon
Published February 21
Updated February 21

BROOKSVILLE — When Len Sossamon was fired as Hernando County administrator on Jan. 29, it was just as predicted when he took the job in 2012.

Hernando County, he was told, devoured its administrators. The head-hunter advertising the position urged candidates to have "the skin of an alligator.'' Sossamon became the ninth administrator in 12 years.

Sossamon's tenure depended on support from at least three of the five commissioners. And he had that support until last year, after a shift in control of the all-Republican board.

Commissioners Nick Nicholson, Steve Champion and Wayne Dukes formed a majority coalition that supported Sossamon. Then Nicholson was arrested in April on prostitution-related charges and suspended from office.

Gov. Rick Scott replaced Nicholson in June with John Mitten, who sided with Commissioners John Allocco and Jeff Holcomb on a number of issues, including Sossamon's firing.

Over the years, commissioners have formed competing — and sometimes shifting — factions, whose votes have benefited businesses ranging from tourism development and land purchases to garbage hauling and airport operations. And business and political leaders have struck out behind the scenes at commissioners — and administrators — who don't behave as they wish.

In Sossamon's final moments on the job, members of the new majority criticized him for letting other commissioners run him in the past.

There wasn't a single commissioner who didn't do that, Sossamon fired back.

"I think I can safely say in front of God and everybody that the micromanaging potential and propensity of the boards I've had in this county has been greater than in any place I have served in 30 years, without a doubt,'' Sossamon said.

"Nobody's shirt tails or cuffs of their britches are clean, bar none,'' he said. "I can say that unequivocally."

The way it was

For years, the commission majority supported Sossamon, and their supporters benefited.

Dukes gave Sossamon perfect scores on his evaluations, and Nicholson's were largely positive. Both had connections to Tom Barnette, a local businessman who gave counsel and money to their campaigns. Barnette owns a travel agency and has ties to other enterprises that have done business with the county.

Barnette won a $50,000 contract for his "Follow the Mermaid'' marketing campaign, which the county bought in 2014, but never used. He arranged a consulting agreement in 2016 with a company chosen to run a multi-million dollar, waste-to-energy effort that the county later dropped. And he was a consultant to Republic Services, which in 2017 won a seven-year, no-bid contract with the county for garbage service.

Previous coverage: Hernando hires two companies to assist with marketing plan

Champion joined the majority coalition when he was elected in 2015. It was not so much that Champion was a Barnette man, but more that he wasn't a Kimbrough man.

Champion said he ran to oppose what he called the good old boys in Brooksville, whom he blamed when SunTrust bank canceled accounts with his American Gun and Pawn business.

For years, the face of SunTrust in Hernando County has been bank executive Jim Kimbrough. The bank helped finance local business expansion, and Kimbrough worked behind the scenes to influence commissioners and administrators.

As recently as last week's commission meeting, Champion said he was pleased to see SunTrust disappear from the local banking landscape after hearing about its recently-announced merger with BB&T.

The Champion-Dukes-Nicholson coalition was made clearer last year during the Hernando County Sheriff's Office investigation into charges against Nicholson. A witness close to Nicholson told investigators that she overheard Champion tell him that if Nicholson left the board, their three-person alliance would no longer be in charge.

The three "are all on the same team together, and they can get whatever they want done, because they're the majority,'' the woman told detectives.

Champion and Dukes cast the two lone votes against firing Sossamon.

The other camp

Commissioners Holcomb, Allocco and Mitten voted to fire Sossamon.

Among the new majority's connections are ties to local Republican Party leaders and the Greater Hernando Chamber of Commerce.

Holcomb leads the Hernando County Republican Party Executive Committee, a job he took over from Allocco, who took it over from state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia (R-Spring Hill). Until this year, Ingoglia was head of the state Republican Party.

Mitten chaired the Chamber's government affairs committee for years. And Chamber chairman Marilyn Pearson-Adams is head of Century 21 Alliance Realty, the same company at which Holcomb is a real estate agent.

Local Republican and business leaders have long said that Sossamon should not have been both county administrator and economic development director. Outwardly, they said that the economic development role was so important, there should be one person doing only that job. Anonymously, through pop-up social media sites, they criticized Sossamon specifically.

The idea of splitting the job surfaced again after Mitten joined the board last year and commissioners first discussed reopening Sossamon's contract.

Previous coverage: Hernando administrator to keep dual roles

The Chamber reminded commissioners of its concerns in an email sent to all commissioners on the day of Sossamon's ouster.

"... an individual dedicated solely to the mission of economic development is necessary to help achieve economic prosperity for businesses and residents of Hernando County,'' wrote Pat Crowley, chamber president.

One of the biggest prizes for commission factions has been helping their business interests at the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport. It came down to a power struggle between Sossamon and Gary Schraut, a real estate broker, who also works with Chamber chairman Pearson-Adams.

Previous coverage: Problems at Hernando airport site anger county administrator

When Sossamon arrived in Hernando County, Schraut was chairman of the airport's Aviation Authority, a longstanding advisory board that the commission disbanded in 2014 after a series of controversies.

On the day he was fired, Sossamon told commissioners this story: Shortly after he arrived, he said, Schraut asked him to sign some airport paperwork and reacted badly when Sossamon wanted to read it first.

"The battleground of Hernando County is littered with people who tried to take me out,'' Sossamon said he was told by Schraut. "I thought to myself, I'm a southern boy, and I recognize a threat when I hear one.''

Previous coverage: Debate over county administrator's future grows testy after proposed contract extension is withdrawn

Schraut told the Times this week that he never had that conversation with Sossamon, although he remembers telling him that he would be around long after Sossamon was gone.

Schraut denied any power struggle over the airport — as Aviation Authority chairman, he said, the law was on his side. But he acknowledged that he and Sossamon were at odds.

Sossamon lied to him, Schraut said, and worked to secure business for Barnette. That's why Schraut said he helped to run a website called "Lenny the Liar" during the 2016 election season, blasting Sossamon and the commissioners who supported him.

Schraut has been closely aligned with Kimbrough. In 2013, Kimbrough and Schraut were outed for holding secret meetings with commissioners about the airport, perpetuating the sense that the airport was a closed shop and only certain individuals got business there. Kimbrough publicly supported the Schraut-led Aviation Authority, and his bank funded economic development projects at the airport.

In 2016, Schraut supported Kimbrough and Cliff Manuel of Coastal Engineering, when they made a run at the county waste-to-energy contract — challenging the company connected to Barnette.

Previous coverage: Politics shows in selection of waste-to-energy contractor

Also during the run-up to the 2016 election, Ingoglia admitted this week, he was an investor in the now-defunct Florida News Flash, a blog that also posted negative stories about the commissioners who supported Sossamon. Ingoglia said he had no editorial control over the site, even though he was a site administrator.

Ingoglia said he does not discuss local politics with commissioners and has no alliance with Holcomb or Allocco. He said he did not think Sossamon was doing a good job, but was not behind his ouster.

"I thought he was a poor administrator," Ingoglia said. "He took on too much and played too many political games.''

Sossamon told the Times last week that he tried to talk to all sides during his tenure, even Kimbrough and Schraut. That probably extended his longevity, he said. But he also was realistic.

"You can please some of the people, but you can never please all of the people," Sossamon said. "Sooner or later, it comes back to bite you. And it did.''

The new reality

Holcomb had been in the minority coalition since he was elected to the commission in 2014. But his fortunes began rising last year as he became part of the new majority.

In December, Holcomb was named head of the county Republican Party. Days later, he was nominated to be commission chairman — over vice-chairman John Allocco.

Sossamon's biggest cheerleader on the board, Dukes, blasted giving Holcomb the chairmanship.

"He hasn't shown that he has a working relationship with our administrator,'' Dukes said. "Matter of fact, the rumor is that he'd like to fire him today.''

In fact, Holcomb gave Sossamon his most critical evaluations over the years and spoke out about his contract extension in 2016.

Dukes was outvoted, however, and Holcomb took the gavel.

On Jan. 29, Holcomb — not known to spearhead issues at commission meetings — passed his gavel to Mitten so he could make a motion himself. Holcomb gave a detailed statement about why Sossamon needed to go and moved for his termination.

Dukes spoke out again.

Dukes said he had missed a recent meeting of the local Republican Executive Committee. But he had heard that during the meeting, Ingoglia's father, Andrew Ingoglia, asked Holcomb when he was going to fire Sossamon.

"Folks, there's something wrong with this,'' Dukes said. "It smells.''

Holcomb said he responded at the committee meeting that he had placed an item about Sossamon's contract on the upcoming commission agenda.

Previous coverage: Squabble among county commissioners leads to chairman vote

Blaise Ingoglia's legislative assistant, Ashley Hofecker — who is not a regular at commission meetings — sat through the meeting on Jan. 29, occasionally typing on her cell phone. The Times requested any government business-related texts received by commissioners that day on their county or private cell phones. They are public under the Florida Government in the Sunshine Law.

Four commissioners responded immediately. Mitten produced a text from Manuel, saying that with Sossamon gone, they should talk about deputy administrator Jeff Rogers. Three others said they had no government-related text messages on their private phones. Holcomb didn't respond.

A week later, when called specifically about the texts, Holcomb said he had no government-related texts.

"I had no marching orders from Blaise Ingoglia. He's too busy,'' Holcomb said. "People just want to have an enemy they can point to.''

Ingoglia said it was Holfecker's job to monitor local government, and that's why she was at the meeting.

At the Jan. 29 meeting, Allocco and Mitten shared Holcomb's concerns about Sossamon, citing budgeting errors and poor employee management decisions. Those problems have the county spending more than $9 million more in its general fund this year than it is collecting in revenue. Allocco said this week that he arrived at his decision on Sossamon independently.

Previous coverage: Hernando County Commission fires top administrator

But the question of who was responsible for the county's budget and personnel problems — Sossamon or the commissioners he worked for — remains.

Since the majority coalition of the commission flipped, Schraut has started to attend commission meetings again after being away for years. And a new airport advisory committee has formed.

Two properties that Schraut represents, and stands to receive a commission from selling, secured county contracts at the same meeting in which Sossamon was fired.

Manuel challenged a recent bid for airport engineering work after Coastal Engineering wasn't recommended by the county staff. The matter is slated for discussion at Tuesday's commission meeting.

Several days after his termination, Sossamon said he is proud of his business development accomplishments, the county's strategic plan and its master storm water plan.

"My conscience is clear,'' Sossamon said. "I did a good job for the county.''

He hopes the "revolving door'' of administrators doesn't happen again, saying it does not serve the county.

Sossamon, 68, said he is looking at several possible employment opportunities. He earned an annual salary and benefit package worth just over $295,000 for his dual position and will receive a parting package worth $76,089 in severance and $61,386 in paid leave time.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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