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Alleged "Leader" of Agency Sex Parties Resigns After IA Investigation

BROOKSVILLE – The Hernando County Sheriff's Office is reporting the resignation of a deputy who violated several agency policies, but it's not what the deputy did insomuch as who the deputy is that may shock you.

According to reports, at 5:00 a.m. on March 21, 2023, Deputy Joseph McClellan claimed to initiate a traffic stop on Elgin Blvd. At the same time, a Sergeant was passing McClellan's location and noticed his vehicle blacked out in the median. The sergeant made a U-turn to try and back up McClellen but he couldn't located a traffic stop in the area. The sergeant returned to the area where McClellan was parked and found him still blacked out in the same location.

Concerned over what was discovered, the sergeant researched McClellan's traffic stop history and found two additional stops that did not take place. The sergeant also discovered that McClellan had turned off his dash-cam and operated his patrol car in emergency mode (lights and sirens) without turning on the dash-cam.

On March 23, 2023, McClellan was notified that an Internal Affairs investigation was being conducted into alleged policy violations. Upon its conclusion, investigators determined that McClellan had allowed a civilian ride along to approach vehicles during traffic stops, unsupervised, to return the violators driver's license and other documents. He even allowed the civilian to issue warnings for speeding and view McClellan's Mobile Data Terminal (MDT). Investigators also found several witness statements, from two different cases inside his patrol car. Those statement are critical pieces of evidence used by defense attorneys and state attorneys during the prosecution of an alleged crime. Finally, investigators found seven additional traffic stops that did not exist.

On May 19, 2023, McClellan returned all Sheriff's Office property and declined to be interviewed by investigators.

Sheriff Al Nienhuis said, "It is extremely disappointing any time a law enforcement officer tarnishes the badge or fails to perform to the highest standards. I personally swear in every new employee, both sworn and civilian. While swearing in deputies, they must raise their right hand and swear they will never betray the badge, oath, integrity, character, or the public trust and they must hold themselves and others accountable for their actions. Evidence revealed in this internal investigation proves Deputy Joseph McClellan failed to uphold this oath, bringing discredit to himself and to the agency as a whole." Nienhuis goes on to say, "Further, I commend the detective who came forward with the initial concern regarding the traffic stop, as he obviously honors the oath, he took to hold himself and others accountable for their actions."

What sheriff Nienhuis doesn't mention in today's report is that he and McClellan are among five other defendants in a federal lawsuit filed last year.

R News first reported news of the lawsuit in September of 2022, after former deputy Matthew Puglia claimed he was terminated the prior year for complaining about "boorish" comments made by McClellan towards his girlfriend. According to the complaint, Puglia introduced his girlfriend to McClellan while at a shooting range where McClellan worked. Later that day, McClellan tried to connect with Puglia's girlfriend on social media. Over the next several weeks, McClellan engaged in sexually suggestive conversation with Puglia regarding his girlfriend. The complaint filed by Puglia's attorney, John 'Jack' Webb, reads, "HCSO was aware of the existence of a hyper-sexualized workplace of which McClennan was a key participant, if not the de facto leader. Upon information and belief, a long standing and pervasive culture of extramarital sexual activity exists at HCSO involving group sex parties amongst HCSO officers and non-sworn HSCO employees." The complaint also provides a text message from a Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) official that reads, "Anyone hear a rumor going around about a sex tape with an unknown deputy and Devlin from Arms? Ok. Well keep it in mind in case you hear anything. From what I hear McClellan and his wife are the ones who throw all of the parties."

In May of last year, McClellan allegedly made sexually harassing comments towards Puglia in front of Lt. Scott Reak, Sgt, Hillman, and five other employees. McClellan asked if Puglia was married to his significant other and then stated, "She has big tits." Despite Puglia's very vocal objections to McClellan's comments, neither Lt. Reak nor Sgt. Hillman took any action against McClellan.

After the confrontation between Puglia and McClellan, the agency began criticizing and rejecting his written reports. On June 21st, Lt. Reak told Puglia he had a "bad name," and that he was no longer welcome at HCSO.

After several months of harassment, Puglia was placed under an IA investigation and even criminal investigation for allegedly seeking assistance with his report writing. The state attorney did not pursue criminal charges, but the IA determined that he violated electronic communications policy and performed unsatisfactorily while on probation. On December 8, 2022, Sheriff Al Nienhuis signed off on Puglia's termination.

Webb believes there is sufficient evidence to prove HCSO falsified documents in an effort to have the case dismissed.

Webb expects depositions to begin within the next 30 days, but the agency's attorney continues to file motions in an attempt to prevent Nienhuis and other top brass from testifying.

It's unknown if McClellan will be forced to retain his own attorney to defend against Puglia or if the agency will still provide representation.

HCSO is no stranger to controversy involving sexual misconduct. Just last year, former deputy Zachary Carter was arrested one count of sexual battery, after he promised to remove a warrant from the victim's record if she performed sexual favors. When he failed to take care of the matter, she reported Carter to officials. That case is still pending, and Carter is due back in court on June 22nd for a pretrial hearing.

Officials have declined to comment.

R News will continue to follow the Puglia lawsuit.

 

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