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Targeted by inquiry, captain put on leave

It's unclear if the administrative leave is connected to an investigation of Robert Hempel involving computer use.

By ANNE LINDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 7, 2001


PINELLAS PARK -- Capt. Robert Hempel, one of the Police Department's three highest-ranking officers, is on paid leave while the Sheriff's Office investigates allegations that he used his private computer on city time and on city business.

Pinellas Park police Chief Dorene Thomas asked the sheriff last month for help in an internal investigation into the use of a private, or non-city, computer for city business, said a sheriff's spokeswoman.

"In a letter dated Jan. 4 from the chief of police and copied to the city manager, they requested our assistance into conducting an investigation into the use of a personally owned computer by a commanding officer on company time," sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha said. "It's not uncharacteristic for us to do internal affairs investigations for other agencies at their request."

Pasha declined to comment further because the investigation is still open.

Hempel could not be reached for comment.

It's unclear if the administrative leave is connected to the sheriff's investigation. Pinellas Park officials were tight-lipped Tuesday. City Manager Jerry Mudd referred questions to Capt. Mike Vetter, who is in charge while Thomas is away on funeral leave.

Vetter at first said answers would have to wait until Thomas returns Friday. But when asked if Hempel was at work, Vetter answered, "No, Capt. Hempel's not. According to the computer, he's on vacation. He put in for vacation some time ago."

Later, Mudd confirmed that Hempel had been placed on administrative leave.

"Capt. Hempel is on administrative leave and it would be inappropriate for me to comment further," Mudd said. He denied that administrative leave is the same as a suspension.

Mudd also denied having a copy of the letter that Thomas wrote to the Sheriff's Office.

The notification placing Hempel on administrative leave was equally terse and uninformative:

"Effective Feb. 5, 2001, until further notice, you have been placed on administrative leave. Please make yourself available for contact/instructions from this office by telephone. You are to contact senior staff assistant Beverly Waggoner . . . on a daily basis, Monday through Friday, while on this leave."

Hempel, 46, has worked for the Police Department for about 181/2 years. He earns about $62,800 a year.

At one time, Hempel appeared to be the logical successor to then-Chief David Milchan. He applied for the chief's job when Milchan notified the city that he intended to retire. Milchan later withdrew his notice of retirement and Hempel stayed as the department's second in command, taking charge when Milchan was away.

Recently, however, his star has fallen rapidly and publicly.

Early last year, a female caller to the city's Meet Your Mayor and Council television show berated Mayor Bill Mischler for not having Hempel fired after the officer was accused of beating his wife. No charges were ever filed, and both Hempel and his wife, Sherry, have denied that any abuse took place.

Police Officer Charles Prichard later accused Hempel of punching him. Hempel denied striking Prichard, saying that he only touched the officer on the shoulder in a comradely manner.

Prichard and others also filed union grievances, alleging they were on a "hit list" of officers targeted for dismissal. An independent consultant hired by the city found no written hit list, but said Hempel had told other officers there were five employees he'd like to see gone.

Hempel denied the statements, but the investigator, Tampa attorney D. Robert Lewis, did not believe the captain's version of events.

That report came on the heels of a city-commissioned morale survey in which officers, writing anonymously, were uniformly disparaging of Hempel.

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