PORT RICHEY, Florida - A councilwoman, who criticized journalism and reporters before she even saw 10Investigates’ Monday story on problems at the Port Richey Police Department and City Hall, explained Monday she doubted the credibility and newsworthiness of the investigation. But said she was still open to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) getting involved.
Following Monday’s online publishing of the story, Port Richey Councilwoman Jennie Sorrell continued her criticism of the investigative report that exposed how discipline documents had gone missing from certain officers’ HR files and may have been accessed illegally – all without a formal investigation from the chief of police. One of the officers at the center of the controversy was the chief’s old partner.
“A four month investigation and this is the first I have heard of it. That makes me wonder about the fairness of the story,” Sorrel wrote in an email Tuesday. “It seems that would have received some attention in city hall and others would have known about it.”
Sorrell eventually agreed to a Wednesday interview with 10Investigates, but then backed out. So a reporter knocked on the door at her home.
During a 14-minute exchange, Sorrell said the city’s police department may need to be investigated by FDLE, but the issues of the missing discipline records were not “worthy” of 10Investigates’ time.
“I just don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” she said. “You have already...formed an opinion and have decided that there’s something terribly wrong there, and I don’t believe that’s true.”
Sorrell also criticized the credibility of journalists, Port Richey’s previous police chief, and the law enforcement whistleblowers who initially reached out to 10Investigates with a tip because they weren’t comfortable coming forward publicly with their concerns.
“I think that watchdogs and whistleblowers shouldn’t throw stones if they live in glass houses. You know, seriously, they are not that frickin’ perfect either,” Sorrell said, referring to former Chief Rob Lovering and Asst. Chief Bill Ferguson, who agreed to interviews only after they were contacted during the course of 10Investigates’ reporting.
Sorrell defended current Police Chief Jerry DeCanio, whom she described as still “new-on-the-job” after nearly 9 months and needed time to get to the bottom of the missing records controversy.
And she blamed 10Investigates for taking her emails “out-of-context,” even though the public emails from the councilwoman were posted in their entirety on WTSP.com.
“I didn’t trust you in the first place, and I certainly don’t trust you now,” Sorrell said. “I’m not sure reporters are capable anymore of giving the truth.”
The councilwoman said she would be asking more questions of the chief and city manager, but “if everyone is telling me the truth, then I don’t think we have anything to hide.”
Both Lovering and the West Central Florida Police Benevolent Association have called for outside investigation into the department, and 10Investigates has confirmed FDLE has received other requests for investigation as well.
Following a whistleblower’s tip, 10Investigates launched a four-month investigation into the Port Richey Police Department, where someone allegedly accessed personnel records to remove detrimental discipline and evaluations: an apparent violation of several Florida state criminal statutes. Research included numerous records requests and interviews with officers, former officers, and several with the current police chief, DeCanio.
Sources within the Port Richey Police Department spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation.
10Investigates learned not only had dozens of disciplinary documents gone missing from both police department and city HR records, but there also seemed to be a lack of appetite from DeCanio to launch an internal investigation or ask for outside help to get to the bottom of how the records – which are required to be retained by state law – disappeared. DeCanio insisted the problems happened before he re-joined the department last October as chief.
The city’s mayor, Dale Massad, who helped pick Chief DeCanio last year, finally returned 10Investigates’ numerous messages Wednesday and said he had no comment on the problems other than “Jerry DeCanio is a tremendously and totally honest person.”
“I don’t really know what’s going on,” Massad continued. “I’ve tried to stay away from it – if Jerry says (the documents) weren’t there (when he started), I believe him.”
Vice Mayor Terry Rowe has not returned 10Investigates’ messages since the story was published Monday, but responded to a request for a phone call last week with an email that asked, “are you fake news?”
Councilman Will Dittmer said he would have questions for city leadership at next week’s council meeting, and Councilwoman Nancy Britton, who is frequently the lone dissenting member on 4-1 council votes, said she intended to bring the issue up at Tuesday’s regular meeting. Britton was also the only councilmember to oppose replacing the former chief with Chief DeCanio last year, and was the only councilmember not to receive financial support from Mayor Massad during campaign season.