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Sullivan fired after violating senator's media policy

Ginny Brown-Waite says there are reasons she doesn't allow her staff to speak with reporters.

By JAMIE MALERNEE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2001


When County Commissioner Paul Sullivan lost his re-election bid, state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite came to the rescue with a job offer. Now, less than three months after Sullivan began working as her legislative aide, the senator has fired him.

The reason? He schoomzed with reporters and repeatedly violated her office policy that staffers not speak with members of the media, she said Tuesday.

Since Sullivan started working for Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, the tension between the two former political allies has been building. The last straw, she says, came Friday -- when he asked a St. Petersburg Times reporter to dinner. Sullivan says the reporter was an old friend he wanted to catch up with. Brown-Waite insists they would have talked shop, as she claims he has done many times in the past.

"Nobody speaks to the media but me. Nobody. But that's the policy he refuses to adhere to. He constantly spoke to the media," she said Tuesday. "I don't know how to make it any clearer to him. There are just so many ways you can say to an employee, "These are the rules of the game.' "

Sullivan, who routinely spoke with reporters as a county commissioner without having to get anyone's approval, insists he invited Times reporter Alisa Ulferts to dinner as a friend, not a journalist. Ulferts covered Hernando County government when Sullivan, a Republican, was a commissioner.

She had come by the office while covering the legislative session in Tallahassee last week, and the two exchanged pleasantries in front of another staffer, who later told Brown-Waite, he said. Had the two actually made plans to meet, they would have talked about their families, new jobs and life in general, Sullivan said.

"What am I supposed to do? Ignore people I've known for years?" Sullivan asked. "We would have talked about how we were doing -- not Senator Brown-Waite."

But the senator doesn't buy it.

"I doubt a reporter is going to have dinner with Mr. Sullivan because of his charming personality," she said. "You all are reporters first. I understand that."

She added that her media policy is meant to protect her and her staff. If someone criticizes her for a statement, she wants to make sure she's the one who made it. The policy also ensures the public gets the most complete information, she said.

"Very often, staff doesn't have the complete picture of something -- whereas I have the whole picture," she said. "I don't hide from the media. I take my own lumps."

Sullivan's tendency to speak freely has landed him in hot water with Brown-Waite before.

Brown-Waite scolded Sullivan in February after he requested a handicapped parking spot at the Hernando County Government Center be moved to accommodate a space for visiting elected officials and staff.

Brown-Waite later ordered Sullivan and other aides to write a letter to the county making clear that this request was against her wishes and that staffers had acted "outside their purview."

Then on March 8, Sullivan told a reporter that the senator was in the hospital with asthma problems resulting from cold weather, heavy spring pollen and a busy work schedule. Brown-Waite now says her work schedule had nothing to do with it -- she had simply not taken the proper medicine.

Sullivan says she was upset with him because the report "made her look bad" but that she hadn't made a big deal about it. In fact, Sullivan said he was under the impression he was doing a great job.

"Just the day before, she told me I was doing a good job, that I had learned the process and was developing relationships. So, I don't know what happened," he said. "One day, I'm a great employee. The next, I'm no longer working there."

Brown-Waite agreed that, except for the media issue, Sullivan was a hard worker who took his job seriously. He just didn't follow her instructions about the media.

Which leaves Sullivan, 55, looking for a new job -- again. In five years, he qualifies for a military pension, and when he turns 62, he will qualify for a government pension. Despite the abrupt nature of his firing, he says he has no hard feelings toward the senator.

"I've never been terminated from anything in my life, so it's strange. But so be it. She's the boss and can make those decisions."

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