Bad News for HCSO Top Brass, as More Lies, Deceit, and Cover-ups are Exposed
Last updated 11/1/2022 at 12:23pm
HERNANDO – We are supposed to trust those who protect and serve our community, but when leadership is self-serving and corrupt, it tarnishes the reputation of those on the street. When a bad apple is left too long among the bunch – well – you know the result.
Last week, R News broke the news of a lawsuit filed against seven Hernando County Sheriff's Office (HCSO) employees, including Sheriff Al Nienhuis. Former Deputy Matthew Puglia alleges in the federal action that an agency-sanctioned "sex club" exists within the ranks and that he was terminated for not participating with his "significant other." You can read the full story by clicking HERE
Since that report, R News has received a deluge of comments and tips from current HCSO employees. All of them corroborate the allegations and say the pressure to conform is so overwhelming that they are constantly in fear of retaliation for not participating. Most refuse to go on the record, in fear that they might be the next deputy on the chopping block, but no one has refuted the allegations.
Following up on some of the recent tips, R News discovered evidence of HCSO top officials covering up investigations, hiding public information, and targeting this journalist for reporting facts. In addition, R News uncovered a lawsuit filed by one of the Puglia case defendants who sued the agency for disability, and was suddenly promoted. We'll get into that a little later.
R News regularly submits Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to various agencies, in an effort to substantiate claims with documented evidence. Last week, R News requested all emails sent to and from any employee at the agency, referencing this reporter's name. What I discovered was completely unexpected and very disturbing.
Prior to the sex scandal story, R News published an article regarding former HCSO attorney and current Fifth Circuit Judge Joel Fritton. Click HERE to read that article. On September 6th, R News received information from a source that Judge Fritton was allegedly making threats towards his estranged wife and other individuals. That same source also alleged that Fritton would abuse his power to get his way and that other judges, including Chief Judge Daniel B. Merritt Jr. were involved in "fixing" cases for certain attorneys.
Immediately after I inquired with the HCSO's Public Information Officers about the Fritton issues, Maj. Phil Lakin, one of the defendants in the Puglia case sent an email to Matthew Balogh, the agency's Information Technology Director, regarding my investigation. Lakin writes:
These are three emails that have been used by this subject over the last few years when emailing this agency.
Tom Lemons email@example.com
Tom Lemons [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Please get me all emails that have gone from our agency to any of these three emails in 2022.
Please get me a list of all persons who viewed the CAD call attached during the time frame it was occurring through today.
Please get me a list of all persons who have read this case before I asked you to hide it. 2022- 26437 (This is the case number associated with the investigation into Judge Fritton)
There are a few very frightening issues with that email; first, why is Maj. Lakin investigating this reporter for performing the duties of a journalist, and why is he asking to "hide" information from the public before it reaches the agency's records department? And what about the employees he's requesting to speak with? Are they now in fear of their job security? Is this an isolated incident or just more illicit activity from a rogue command, finally coming to light? How much information has already been hidden from this reporter and the community?
The remaining emails were no less surprising. Since R News reestablished a presence in Hernando County back in February of this year, the HCSO has organized a smear campaign, prevented this reporter from conducting business, and stifled access to public information,
Media outlets depend on press releases from law enforcement and government agencies to report news in a timely manner. Media-Alert is a private company that most agencies use to send their press releases, instead of sending mass emails to dozens of recipients. Media outlets subscribe to Media-Alert to receive that information expeditiously, so that they remain competitive in their respective markets. The former Real News Real Fast subscribed to Media-Alert for several years. In February, R News re-subscribed and began receiving reports. But as soon as the HCSO Public Information Officer Denise Moloney found out that R News was in operation, she sent an email to the company and proceeded to defame this reporter, and requested that my account be removed. The email sent on March 23rd reads in part:
An individual by the name of Floyd Thomas Lemons (aka Thomas Newcastle III) represents himself as a local journalist; however, he is nothing more than a blogger, oftentimes posting information that has not been confirmed and/or is most inaccurate.
I'd like to know if it is possible to remove all notifications from the Hernando County Sheriff's Office from Mr. Lemons' subscription.
As a direct result to Moloney's email, Media-Alert revoked R News' subscription.
There are numerous problems with Moloney sending that email - too many to list - but defamation of character for making false statements about this reporter is one; contacting a private company to defame the operations of a Florida Corporation is another. R News is a subsidiary of Patriodoc Productions Inc. Essentially, a representative of the HCSO attacked an employee of a private corporation for the sole purpose of causing financial damage. Moreover, the Hernando County Sheriff's Office abused its power to prevent the public from receiving fact-based news reports regarding the agency's activities.
Moloney is not a journalist and is she is not the arbiter of who can practice journalism or news reporting. Journalism is the practice of gathering factual information, interviewing subjects, and disseminating a non-opinionated reports to the public through print or electronic means. There are no government credentials, and you don't have to work for a major news outlet to be considered a legitimate journalist. Moloney is using the HCSO to censor and suppress the First Amendment rights of this reporter and anyone who publishes critical reports of the HCSO.
After publishing the Puglia report, the community began to question officials on the agency's Facebook page. As a result, agency representatives spent days responding to criticisms and making claims that this reporter and R News are lying, inaccurate, and not a trusted source. After being a subscriber to the agency's Facebook page for over 12 years, they decided to remove and block this reporter and the company page. What they may not realize is that federal law prohibits a government agency from blocking anyone from their social media pages. A 2019 Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the interactive portion of a public official's Facebook page is a "public forum," so an official cannot block people from it because of the opinions they hold. A record search revealed that nearly 300 people have been blocked on the HCSO page since it was established; however, most of those were obvious fraudulent or scam accounts. Moloney and the rest of the Public Information Office is fully aware of who this reporter is and has interacted with this reporter on countless occasions.
Continuing with the problems plaguing the HCSO's command staff, R News received information that Maj. Lakin filed a lawsuit against the agency in 2020, after experiencing several health-related episodes attributed to hypertension.
According to court documents, a pre-employment physical showed Lakin had signs of hypertension (High Blood Pressure) that the HCSO failed to take into consideration before hiring him in 2002. Throughout his career, Lakin has received numerous reports from doctors that his blood pressure was elevated; however, Lakin continued working until he was hospitalized in 2019 for an "incident" during work hours. Lakin returned to work a few days later and then filed benefit claims in 2020, asserting he was due compensation under the Heart and Lung Bill. But the Heart and Lung Bill is a law that protects first responders from serious health issues that arise while they are employed. It does not cover preexisting conditions.
A judge denied Lakin's claim based on the opinions of several physician's testimony, so he appealed the decision. In 2021 the courts denied his appeal and the case came to a close. Despite his continued attempts to receive benefits from the agency, Sheriff Al Nienhuis found it prudent to promote him twice in just two years. Lakin was a Lieutenant just before his promotion to Captain around the same time of his original complaint and then promoted again to Major, at the same time of his appeal. Some say that's just too coincidental and question Sheriff Nienhuis's motives. Does Lakin have information that is damaging to the agency or Sheriff Nienhuis, or is Lakin such an exemplary employee that he rightfully deserved the promotions.
It should be noted that R News has made several inquiries with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, regarding all the issues listed in this article, and they have yet to confirm or deny if HCSO or any employee is under investigation.
R News has not received a single reply from the Public Information Office or representative of the agency regarding the above issues.
R News will continue its investigation...