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Pinellas Park police captain blocks release of documents

By ANNE LINDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001


PINELLAS PARK -- Claiming he is the victim of a political "witch hunt" and an illegal search, a police captain has blocked the release of documents that he thinks are of a "most private nature."

Robert Hempel, 46, won temporary injunctions against Pinellas Park and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which have been investigating his use of his private computer on city time and on city business.

Hempel, who was being groomed as the next chief as recently as a year ago, did not explain what officers might have found on his laptop computer.

"The release of these illegally seized personal materials, which will occur at the conclusion of this investigation, will cause me irreversible, irreparable harm in my career as a police administrator," Hempel said in an affidavit.

It's the latest struggle for the beleaguered Police Department. In the past year, three female officers have filed lawsuits claiming that the department discriminated against them because they are women. Two men alleged that there was a "hit list" of officers targeted for dismissal based on their age and their willingness to speak out.

A morale survey found that officers were overworked and understaffed and did not trust their supervisors. Later, an outside investigator looking into allegations of the hit list found a department on the verge of "implosion."

Hempel claimed he was being unfairly targeted because of past arguments with city officials.

"I believe this entire internal affairs investigation is politically motivated by Chief (Dorene) Thomas and the city of Pinellas Park as part of a "witch hunt' to try and find anything that could be used to get rid of me in light of my past support of (former) Chief (David) Milchan and disagreements with City Manager (Jerry) Mudd," Hempel said.

Thomas and Mudd declined to comment, saying they were prohibited from speaking by the court order.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha said the department had been preparing to turn over documents that the St. Petersburg Times had requested, but Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge David Demers stopped that until a court hearing.

The Times has asked to join the case to get the records released.

Public employees "have an obligation not to spend government time engaging in personal pursuits," said Alison Steele, a St. Petersburg attorney who represents the Times.

"The citizens do have a right to know what Capt. Hempel was doing all of that time that he sat at his government desk in his government office using his government phone supposedly protecting the citizens of Pinellas Park from crime," Steele said.

Hempel, the department's third-ranking officer, has been on administrative leave since early February.

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