One current and two former employees of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office have accused the agency of retaliating against staffers who report misconduct, according to a federal lawsuit.
The April 16 lawsuit says Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco and agency leaders are "intoxicated with power and will physically abuse, intimidate, incarcerate, extort, and defame in order to ensure their absolute control."
A sheriff's spokesperson said the agency is aware of the suit but has not yet been served with it.
"However, one of the plaintiffs, Christopher Squitieri, has previously filed other legal actions that have been successfully defended and dismissed," spokesperson Amanda Hunter said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "We look forward to addressing these allegations in the proper forum and will have no further statements until the court case has been completed."
The suit was brought by John Horning, a deputy who resigned in 2012; Anthony Pearn, an intelligence-led policing manager fired in November 2018; and Christopher Squitieri, a training supervisor still employed at the office who is on unpaid leave.
The lawsuit makes a claim under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (often called RICO) and contains accusations by five anonymous people alleging abuse of power within the Sheriff's Office.
The lawsuit says that in October, after Squitieri reported discrimination against female deputies to the Sheriff's Office, the agency launched an internal investigation into whether Squitieri referred to a co-worker using derogatory language. Squitieri denies the allegation, the suit says, but the complaint was sustained.
A second complaint was filed Jan. 24 against Squitieri, saying he falsified records. The complainant wrote that "Squitieri knowingly falsified" records, the suit says, but an earlier report from a Sheriff's Office detective said the opposite.
Pearn's case began when he worked in the intelligence-led policing division.
On Oct. 8, he was ordered to arrest a civilian who posted a mugshot of a deputy on Facebook, the suit says.
Pearn reported the incident to a higher supervisor and was told he might be better off in another division, the suit says.
The suit says Pearn was also a witness in the earlier investigation into Squitieri. The lawsuit alleges that on Oct. 20, Pearn was called by the same supervisor who told him to switch divisions.
That superior tried to pressure Pearn to testify in the investigation of Squitieri, the suit says, then Pearn was fired in November.
The final plaintiff, Horning, resigned in 2012 in protest of how his brother — a suspect of a crime — was treated, the suit says.
When Horning tried to get a job at another agency in 2015, the suit says, he was rejected because of a Sheriff's Office complaint from 2012 accusing him of tampering with witnesses. Horning says he had never heard about the complaint and that an agency official admitted to him that it was false.
Clearwater attorney John McGuire represents the trio. He said he chose to pursue the suit under the racketeering law because he found a pattern of criminality within the Sheriff's Office.
"That fit perfectly for what they were doing," he said.
The benefit of using the racketeering law, from a plaintiff's perspective, is that it calls for triple the damages, said David Shapiro, a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. The law, which also can be used in criminal cases, is designed to go after organized crime. It's unusual to use it against a government agency, Shapiro said.
"The Sheriff's Office is not normally a racketeering office. It doesn't pose that kind of a risk for future misconduct," he said, speaking generally. "That's why RICO has such heavy penalties: You're talking about a major risk to society."
The typical next step, Shapiro said, is for the defense to ask the judge to drop the case because it doesn't fit under racketeering law.
Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Justin Trombly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @JustinTrombly. Contact Kathryn Varn at email@example.com or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.