How turmoil in a Clearwater city department ended in an arrest

Three investigations in a year revealed problems in the Marine and Aviation Department.
Boats occupy some of the more than 200 slips at the Clearwater Beach Marina on Oct. 13, 2021. The marina is part of the city's Marine and Aviation Department, which, according to records, has suffered workplace turmoil since 2019.
Boats occupy some of the more than 200 slips at the Clearwater Beach Marina on Oct. 13, 2021. The marina is part of the city's Marine and Aviation Department, which, according to records, has suffered workplace turmoil since 2019. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 13, 2022|Updated Jan. 14, 2022

CLEARWATER — Unchecked turmoil inside the city’s Marine and Aviation Department resulted in three investigations in less than a year and pushed the new city manager to hire a law firm to further examine an array of allegations, according to records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

Among the inquiries is a criminal investigation triggered by a Dec. 18 email from former department employee William Bucceri, which included a diatribe with threatening language, a racial slur, reference to suicide and a YouTube clip of a rape scene from a cartoon sitcom. Attached to the email, sent to a handful of Clearwater officials, were photos of a city employee exposed with his pants down in a maintenance shop.

Bucceri was medically released by the city in May while human resources officials were conducting two investigations, including one that confirmed Bucceri had been calling his supervisor and colleagues racist nicknames since 2019. Both investigations showed how a communal failure to report Bucceri’s behavior and other issues led to continued workplace strife.

The department has a $7.1 million budget, about 28 full-time employees and operates the city’s two marinas, the Seminole Boat Ramp and Clearwater Airpark.

Bucceri, 45, was arrested on Dec. 22 and charged with sexual cyber-harassment for allegedly disseminating the sexually explicit photo without the victim’s consent, according to the arrest affidavit.

William Bucceri
William Bucceri [ Pinellas County Sheriff's Office ]

While being interviewed on Dec. 27 by human resources officials, the man in the photos described years of harassment from Bucceri. He alleged that his colleagues knew about it and never intervened.

When reached by phone, Bucceri’s father declined to comment on behalf of his son.

In response to the email incident, City Manager Jon Jennings, who began work with the city in November, hired the Tampa-based Allen, Norton & Blue law firm on Jan. 7 to investigate issues in the department.

When asked how problems persisted for so long, Assistant City Manager Micah Maxwell said: “I think that’s part of the question, that’s all part of what the (law firm) investigation is going to try to get to the bottom of.”

After a meeting with Jennings on Dec. 28 to discuss the Bucceri email and past issues, Marine and Aviation Department Director Ed Chesney submitted his resignation effective Feb. 4. In an interview with the Times, Chesney said his early retirement was not due to problems in his department, which he said were largely resolved through the human resources investigations that completed in June.

“I’m retiring because of some human resources fatigue,” Chesney said. “This thing was behind us and when it reared its head again, it almost became new to the new city manager.”

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City officials began investigating the culture inside Marine and Aviation in February 2021, when Bucceri filed a grievance about his supervisor, Charles Graves.

Of the 26 allegations Bucceri brought forward, human resources investigators determined 14 were unfounded. They determined Bucceri brought several false allegations against his colleagues, including unfounded claims that an assistant manager was getting kickbacks from a marina restaurant.

But investigators confirmed Graves used profanity, threw tools and lost his temper. They confirmed one employee quit after five weeks due to fear over Graves’ behavior. Graves denied that he flipped over a barrel of tools in anger but acknowledged using profanity, saying so did “the rest of the team as it is ‘locker room talk,’” according to the report.

Investigators confirmed another allegation that after Bucceri became ill after seeing a dead fish, the department’s assistant manager Larry Jones brought baby food to work and called him “Gerber.” Bucceri told investigators he laughed and ate the baby food as part of the joke. In another allegation, Jones confirmed to investigators that he had allowed trade workers to bring city tools home to borrow for personal projects. But investigators did not find that any tools had gone missing.

During the course of these interviews, an employee raised an allegation against Bucceri that sparked a second independent investigation.

Human resources investigators confirmed that, since 2019, Bucceri had repeatedly called Graves, his supervisor, “John Waller” and “the General” and his colleagues “Toby.” Those were the names of a slave master and a slave from the 1977 miniseries Roots. Bucceri also repeatedly showed pictures and video clips from Roots “to describe the working environment” in the department, according to the investigation. He included a scene where a slave master was standing over a slave with a whip.

“This behavior has persisted since 2019 and was never appropriately (addressed) to stop the behavior, but rather it continued to permeate throughout the workgroup,” according to the report.

In October, four employees were notified that they violated city policy by failing to report Bucceri’s behavior, but they did not receive any disciplinary action. Graves was demoted from supervisor to a skilled trades worker and placed on a development plan, which outlines goals and steps for improvement.

Jones was given a five-day unpaid leave and placed on a development plan. Marine and Aviation Operations Manager Michael MacDonald was put on a development plan for failing to report the issues with Bucceri.

But the email Bucceri sent in December to a handful of city employees with an explicit photos of a former colleague raised more concerns, even though he had left the city seven months earlier.

The employee who was pictured exposed with his pants down said Bucceri took the photo in 2020 when Bucceri walked into a maintenance room while he was changing, according to a human resources memo summarizing the Dec. 27 interview. The Times is not naming the employee because he is an alleged victim of a sexual crime.

The employee told investigators that Bucceri said “come on, let’s see it,” and that he thought if he consented to the photo that Bucceri “would not bother him anymore,” according to the memo.

The employee told human resources that Bucceri made intimidating, sexually explicit comments to him over the years, including on a voicemail which he shared with police.

In an interview, Chesney said he was unaware that Bucceri had used the racist Roots nicknames over the years until the human resources investigators detailed their findings. He said the issue ”was contained” to about a dozen employees who worked with Bucceri and never reported the behavior, so he and office staff were unaware of the problems.

“I struggled with it and how it could have happened,” Chesney said. “It was one person who was a problem and others who knew about it who did not report it.”

Maxwell, the assistant city manager, said he intends for the ongoing investigation by the law firm to determine whether an improper work culture led to these issues.

“Any time you have issues that threaten to create an environment that is not helpful in our operation, you have to try to nip it in the bud as best you can,” Maxwell said.