How Hernando Public Information Officers Cheat the Taxpayer, Refuse to Answer Questions, Attack Those Who Ask
REGIONAL – According to a 2016 survey conducted by the National Information Officers Association (NIOA), about 50% of law enforcement public information officers (PIOs) say “There are reporters or media outlets I will not allow officers to talk to because of problems with their stories in the past.” Accessing public information has become a virtual cat and mouse game for crime and police reporters, especially with the growing number of online journalists who deliver news faster than most broadcast and print outlets – like Real News Real Fast.
RNRF has covered local news throughout Hernando, Pasco, and Citrus Counties – mostly Hernando County (HCSO) – for nearly seven years, and until recently, access to the HCSO has been relatively simple. But that harmonious relationship began to crumble last year, after RNRF published several investigative reports into Sheriff Al Nienhuis’s ostensibly bizarre relationship with Dawn Center, and more recently, the controversy over immigration issues.
The liaison between HCSO officials and the media is PIO, Denise Moloney, who began her career with the Sheriff’s Office in the 911 operations center, before taking over as PIO in 2012. In 2014 her title changed to Community and Media Relations Manager, and she currently receives a salary of just over $74,000 per year, which ranks at the top of the pay scale for PIOs with 20-plus years of experience, and extensive backgrounds in journalism – Moloney has neither.
In stark contrast, the Community Relations Director for the Pasco Sheriff’s Office, Kevin Doll, does have an extensive background in journalism and holds a B.A. and M.A. in Mass Communications/Public Relations. He served 8-years with the U.S. Marines, was a combat correspondent during the Gulf War, and after 20-years with PSO, Doll’s salary is just $8,000 more than Moloney’s, at $82,784.
Pasco Sheriff’s Office has two additional PIOs who also have multiple years experience in broadcast journalism, and they make an average of $15,000 less than Moloney.
But the significance in revealing this information is more than just to provide a monetary comparison. There are profound differences between the agency’s work ethic, professionalism, and degree of transparency with the media.
RNRF communicates with Moloney and her associate, PIO Michael Terry, nearly every day of the week but now that RNRF is in the “doghouse” with Sheriff Nienhuis, Moloney has become less than accommodating to RNRF’s requests for information – and that’s an understatement. But who really suffers the consequences? The inquiring minds of 36,000 RNRF viewers, i.e. the taxpayer, that’s who.
Prior to Nienhuis taking offense to our investigation into his affiliation with the non-profit, Dawn Center, Moloney was always accommodating to our requests for quotes, statements, and documentation. And usually without charge. But that has all changed.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was last year’s coverage of immigration issues, where the Center for Immigration Studies claimed that Hernando was at risk of losing federal funding. Rather than responding to our request for comment, prior to publishing the article, Nienhuis waited and proceeded to call RNRF “Fake News,” after the fact. As a result of Nienhuis’s ensuing boycott campaign, RNRF was subjected to a barrage of harassing messages, threatening emails, and ultimately, the loss of some of our sponsors.
To give you an idea of how immature the highly compensated PIO treats a media outlet when they aren’t happy with a story; here is a recent email thread, where I attempt to gain public information on recent vicious dog attacks:
From Tom Lemons, January 17, 2018:
I noticed that you posted animal enforcement calls on the agency FB page.
Out of the 531 complaints this year, are you able to delineate which of those are vicious dog attacks, and from those, which are related to Pit Bulls specifically?
Commissioner Steve Champion says he will be opening discussion about vicious dog attacks in the next BOCC meeting. From an enforcement perspective, does the Sheriff have any comments regarding dog attacks and or Pit Bulls in general? Has or will anything be done to try to quell the number of attacks against animals or humans by vicious dogs? Does HCSO or the Sheriff recognize the term “Pit Bull” as a breed? There are a lot of advocates who say the term Pit Bull is not accurate.
Are there plans in motion to relinquish control of enforcement and turn it over to the County?
There are reports that a volunteer was attacked by a Pit Bull within the last week or so at the shelter. Can you provide the incident report if it is available?
Reply from Denise Moloney:
Good morning, Mr. Lemons:
We do not have a record responsive to your request, as we do not track that specific information.
If you provide a date, time, and/or case # regarding an incident at the HCAS shelter, I will be happy to have our Records staff check to see if there is a report, and if so, if it is available.
Response from Tom Lemons:
Are you saying the Sheriff does not wish to answer the questions I provided to you?
Also, I don’t have an exact date of the incident, but I will find out during my tour of the facility this week and get back to you.
When she did not reply, I sent the following email in a new thread:
Maybe there was an oversight with my prior email.
Can you please forward the following questions to Sheriff Al Nienhuis:
Commissioner Steve Champion says he will be opening discussion about vicious dog attacks in the next BOCC meeting.
From an enforcement perspective, does the Sheriff have any comments regarding dog attacks and or Pit Bulls in general?
Has or will anything be done to try to quell the number of attacks against animals or humans by vicious dogs?
Does HCSO or the Sheriff recognize the term “Pit Bull” as a breed? There are a lot of advocates who say the term Pit Bull is not accurate.
Are there plans in motion to relinquish control of enforcement and turn it over to the County?
I am not requesting a “record.” These are basic questions to the top Law Enforcement Officer of Hernando County. The subject of vicious dog attacks is a serious concern in the community and citizens deserve to hear from the agency that handles enforcement.
If the Sheriff does not wish to reply, please state “No Comment.”
As the liaison between the media and Sheriff Al Nienhuis, it is your job to provide our question to Nienhius and respond with a reply – not decide which media outlet “deserves” access. That seems to be the case in recent months.
As expected, I did not receive a reply form Moloney or Sheriff Nienhuis.
The most common response that I now receive from Moloney, other than an arrest affidavit, is “The HCSO does not have a public record responsive to this request.” So, that means that you, the RNRF viewer, is paying the lead Public Information Officer for the Sheriff’s Office to block access to public information.
Another weapon in Moloney’s arsenal of preventing public information access, is through charging RNRF exorbitant research rates before delivering information. Over the last year, Moloney has sent several invoices ranging in amounts between $10.00 and $1,000 to receive information that is readily accessible with just the stroke of a computer key. No other agency has ever presented proposals for work to be done, unless we are asking for dozens of printed documents or hours of research.
Pasco County Public Information Officers and all other agencies that I work with week-to-week conduct themselves in a professional and courteous manner. They do not take offense to questions and they are always available, day and night, to respond to media questions.
But the “resistance” seems to have afflicted our Hernando County School District Public Information Officer as well, however, that’s old news and our frustrations with School Board PIO, Karen Jordan, is shared with nearly every media outlet in the Tampa Bay Area.
For example, on the heels of yesterday’s positive story about the bus driver who passed our test to try and pick up a child without being on his Purple Dot list, Jordan sent the follow letter in response: (CLICK HERE FOR FULL STORY)
Good morning, Tom.
I have a concern related to the “test” you performed on a member of our
While, the story was positive, the larger concern is that you initiated a
mock “abduction” of a child as a setup of our staff.
Your “test” subjected our bus driver to a public review of performance
that was never in question.
If you had a ‘concern’ about our processes that we use to protect
students, we would have been happy to provide content for your story. I
wonder, will this “gotcha” approach lead others to craft their own
scenarios? What if a child on the bus reported to their parent that there
had been an attempted abduction? What if a confrontation had been the
As a member of the media, I know you believe in your civic and
professional responsibility to report on issues affecting public safety
but there was no incident that warranted this type of challenge.
Tom, our world can be scary at times. As an organization dedicated to the
education and well-being of children, we never take our responsibility
lightly. The safety of our kids is our primary focus and priority.
Despite our efforts to restore a more amicable relationship, for you to
have performed this test reveals your lingering mistrust of our school
district. This exercise was wreckless, dangerous and serves to breed
distrust between the community and our organization.
And, tell me, what value does that add to our community?
Public Information Officer
Hernando County School District
And it should be noted that Karen Jordan refused to provide her salary and work history upon request. All others responded without question.
The question raised by journalists who experience PIO road blocks, such as those demonstrated above, is why are we paying for information that the taxpayer already pays to be made accessible to journalists? In essence, why are we paying twice for work that is already paid for? Are citizens of this county billed every time a Sheriff’s Deputy responds to their home? Are parents billed each day that a student goes to school? No. So, why are reporters billed to access public information that is already in their files?
RNRF charges insurance companies and attorneys when they request video or photographs for their cases. Should we charge the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office for the hours of video evidence that we have provided free of charge over the years? No, and we will never charge an agency for our services because it is our civic duty to help law enforcement whenever possible. With that said, I thought I would see how Moloney would respond if I submitted an invoice for recent DUI video that I provided.
From Denise Moloney:
Law enforcement officials are entitled to gather and seize original evidence. It is unfortunate that you no longer wish to voluntarily cooperate with law enforcement in situations where you have made yourself a witness. In the future, if necessary, we will be required to have a subpoena issued, if such evidence is deemed necessary by the state attorney.
Once again, Moloney proves her lack of knowledge in journalism, in that a reporter, cannot “be made a witness,” in most cases. It’s also a prime example of Moloney’s lack of gratitude for RNRF’s continual aid in providing valuable case evidence, free of charge.
President of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), Rebecca Baker said in a recent report, “These restrictions have become an illustration of the inevitable corrosiveness of censorship. Millions of people are silenced about how their workplace affects people. Managers use the control mechanism to keep everything from the public except the story they want people to hear,”
Kathryn Foxhill of SPJ said, “The restrictions have become, in great part, a cultural norm in the United States. They also have become an effective form of censorship by which powerful entities keeps the public ignorant about what impacts them.”
A note from RNRF President, Tom Lemons:
As mentioned earlier in this article, due to the boycott efforts and defamation campaign initiated by Nienhuis and his associates (Politicians), RNRF has suffered great financial loss and may not be able to continue operations without assistance from our viewers.
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