CLEARWATER, Florida - The fallout from the firings of three veteran deputies and a longtime sergeant is "shock" and "disbelief."
It is being called an "unprecedented" move by current Sheriff Bob Gualtieri to fire veteran employees Deputy Kenneth Burroughs, Deputy Samuel Mitchem, Deputy Robert Harmer, and Sgt. Christopher Metro.
The sheriff suspended two others.
Some are calling this a political witch hunt during an election year.
Sgt. Metro has protected and served the citizens of Pinellas County for 22 years. The husband and father of two tells 10 News that he was heartbroken and shocked when he walked into work Tuesday afternoon only to get fired.
Sheriff Gualtieri says he had no choice but to fire Sgt. Metro along with three other veteran deputies. "They weren't doing their jobs. They don't deserve to work here anymore. The Pinellas County citizens are paying for a service and receive that service, and if people don't want to do their jobs, they forfeit the right to work here," he said.
The sheriff says Metro and others were fired for loafing excessively on the job. They are accused of sitting for hours. Some are accused of running personal errands. The sheriff says the men wasted an estimated $24,000 in taxpayer money.
Sgt. Metro is accused of watching a DVD in his patrol cruiser. He told us, "As far as the DVD is concerned, I'm an Elvis fan. The DVD was a live concert I was listening to."
Since Sgt. Metro supports Sheriff Gualtieri's opponent in the upcoming election, 10 News asked the sheriff point blank: Was that the reason for his firing? Several other fired deputies are also said to support Everett Rice. "There's no truth and it's offensive, frankly. Whoever they support, they're free to support," said the sheriff at a press conference.
However, Sgt. Metro told 10 News, "This is a political witch hunt. Just because I support Everett Rice doesn't mean I'm not loyal to the sheriff's office."
We asked Sgt. Metro about the accusations of deputies loafing and idling in their cars. He told us, "Part of being a good deputy on patrol is watching and observing."
The sheriff says the deputies intentionally concealed their cruisers, they disconnected their agency required GPS, and they left their assigned areas in order to go home, visit family, or idle in other locations.
They responded to calls if dispatched, but did not initiate any law enforcement action for hours at a time. According to Sheriff Gualtieri, "These deputies, by their intentional actions, essentially cheated the taxpayers from July 1, 2011 to December 31, 2011. We believe our findings are a snapshot of what was going on for a longer period of time. This is behavior that will not be tolerated, and they are being held accountable."
A seventh deputy was named in the original investigation, but the charges against him were unsubstantiated.
These are the findings from the investigation released today by the sheriff.
Deputy Kenneth L. Burroughs
Idling and loafing during July 1 - December 31 amounted to 172 instances, for a total of 285 hours, or 35/8-hour work days of inactivity. At his base pay rate - $27.3934 per hour - that amounts to $7,807.11 the taxpayers lost.
Deputy Robert G. Harmer
Idling and loafing time totaled 180 instances, amounting to over 251 hours, or 31/8-hour work days of inactivity on the job. The taxpayers lost $7,853.48, based on the base pay of $31.2888 per hour.
Deputy Samuel Mitchem
Idling and loafing time totaled 212 instances, amounting to over 314 hours, or 39/8 hour work days. The taxpayers lost $9, 002.34 based on his base pay of $28.6699 per hour.
Sergeant Christopher W. Metro
Failure to supervise squad members (including Burroughs and Mitchem), neglecting supervisory responsibilities, failure to use available technology and other tools to monitor staff activities, leaving his area of assignment
and idling, going to personal residence, 10 instances in all of idling of at least one hour each, having knowledge of the deputies' idling and failure to act. Admitted to watching a movie while on duty.
Deputy Brian T. Clark
Suspended for 1 day for lack of self initiated activity, about 4 instances of idling.
Robert J. Wojciechowski
2 day suspension - Lack of self initiated activity, failure to have GPS repaired, about 4 instances of idling.
Deputy Gregory C. Burnham
Allegations against Deputy Burnham were unsubstantiated.
Sheriff Gualtieri said, "Although public safety is always our first consideration, the taxpayers of Pinellas County deserve to know that their tax dollars, which are our salaries, are earned by each of us every day through the provision of effective law enforcement services."
He added, "Through this adversity, I remain proud of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and it members and recognize that the misconduct by these deputies is inconsistent with the fine work performed daily by the majority of the 2,800 members of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office."
Sgt. Metro also told 10 News that he and the other deputies who were fired were nicknamed, "The Red Box Gang." They were accused of renting movies at Red Box locations and watching them on the job. Metro admits he didn't even know what Red Box was.
"I think it comes down to a question of are you sorry you did it or you're sorry you got caught? If they were truly sorry, they wouldn't have done it to begin with, and if they were truly sorry, they wouldn't have done if they were already warned," the sheriff told the media.
We also spoke firsthand with the sheriff's opponent, Everett Rice, to get his take on the situation. When we told him that all of the deputies who were fired claim they were his supporters, he said, "It's kinda curious, don't you think? It's very disappointing."
Rice added, "There's been an outcry for me to come back. There's a lack of leadership. I intend to be elected to come clean that mess up."