Monday, November 20, 2017
News Roundup

After commission vote, Hernando sheriff agrees to turn over inmate dollars

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BROOKSVILLE — A unanimous Hernando County Commission this week asked Sheriff Al Nienhuis to remit to the county all of the revenue he has collected by housing federal inmates at the county jail over the last couple of years, a fund that sat at $2.2 million in the last budget snapshot run by the Sheriff's Office.

Nienhuis did not disclose the fund in his proposed budget to the County Commission on June 1 and did not hand over the money at the end of the last budget year, as required by state statutes, county legal staffers and officials confirmed on Tuesday. The situation has led to renewed debate that has divided the sheriff and the commission, and also created a rift among commissioners.

After the vote, the Sheriff's Office confirmed that Nienhuis will turn over the inmate money before the end of business on Friday. His attorney also told commissioners they would likely get an amended budget that includes the information on inmate revenue.

The issue was first raised in early June, when the commission conducted a budget workshop and Nienhuis commented on additional funds he had that he had not talked to commissioners about because they had not been getting along. Last year, Nienhuis didn't get the budget increase he requested, and he filed an appeal to Tallahassee. In March, the commission reached a settlement with the sheriff.

The federal inmate funds are needed to pay for capital improvements at the jail and to operate the federal inmate housing program, Nienhuis has maintained. But Commissioner Steve Champion has been adamant that it is the County Commission and not the sheriff who is legally responsible for making decisions on jail funding.

On Tuesday, Champion again made the point that the commission could end up giving all of the inmate funds back to the sheriff, but the money must first come to the county.

Further complicating the divide was a fraud and abuse complaint that the former third-in-command under Nienhuis, ex-Major of Operations James Terry, filed with the clerk of the circuit court June 26. That complaint details how Terry attended a meeting in which he says Nienhuis talked about keeping the commission out of the loop on the money intentionally. Nienhuis claims Terry is a disgruntled former employee. Records show that Terry spent 20 years climbing up the ranks in the agency, and there was no indication of performance problems among any of his evaluations.

Citing concern that the county wasn't going to try to prove or disprove the allegations, the sheriff's chief deputy, Mike Maurer, on June 29 sent a letter to the executive director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement seeking an investigation.

An investigator from that agency contacted County Administrator Len Sossamon late Tuesday, spoke with him for about half an hour, Sossamon said, and is slated to meet with him in person on July 31.

On Tuesday, commissioners John Allocco and Jeff Holcomb argued on the sheriff's behalf, talking about the past budget problems and the needs at the jail. Holcomb said that while he was on active military duty for the past year, this issue was the one that "kept me up at night.'' Allocco expressed disappointment in the dispute, saying that one of the main reasons he ran for a seat on the commission was to get past the fights with the sheriff.

Commissioner Wayne Dukes recounted all of the dollars that Nienhuis had collected on the inmates but not shared with the commission. When the sheriff's attorney, Joel Fritton, said their auditor had allowed the accounting method used, Dukes answered, "Not true, not true.'' Dukes also read a memo in which the county's legal staff confirmed that the auditor, who is shared by the county and the sheriff, allowed putting the money in a "special revenue fund," but did not permit the sheriff to keep the funds from the county.

Sheriff's officials contend that the county knew about the federal inmate money because it had been mentioned before to commissioners and was included in previous budgets.

Commenting on Holcomb's sleepless nights over the issue, Dukes noted that Holcomb apparently had spent time during his deployment sending texts criticizing the commission for its actions, which he called "criminal,'' a word Holcomb said he didn't think he had used.

After listening to the back-and -forth between Fritton, the sheriff's attorney, and Jon Jouben, the deputy county attorney, all five commissioners voted to require the return of the inmate money immediately.

"See,'' Champion said after the vote. "We can get along.''

But Dukes was still unhappy that the sheriff had decided to hold back the money and the revenue information in the budget.

"The sad part is that this didn't have to happen,'' Dukes said. "I'm sorry. I don't care what you say or what you think. ... There was a decision made to change protocol, and this is why we're having to have this discussion. It didn't have to happen. It is a waste of county time.''

While Nienhuis did not attend Tuesday's commission meeting, he issued a statement afterward saying, "I'm glad to see that the BOCC realizes this is an accounting issue that should have been handled by staff. I look forward to working with the County Commission to meet the most immediate needs at the jail, both daily operational needs as well as repairs and improvements that are desperately needed for safety and security.''

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

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