“Scannergate” Sheriff Dodges Questions on Using Tax Dollars to Block Police Scanners
HERNANDO – The battle between the media and government is a never-ending game of cat and mouse when it comes to gathering information, especially for journalists who pride themselves in uncovering the truth. For those who aren’t afraid to stick their neck out, it usually means the king or queens of any size government will eventually bellow, “Off with your head.” RNRF’s head is constantly on the chopping block of a few local officials but none more often than that of Sheriff Al Nienhuis. If you’re not familiar with the “history” between RNRF and Nienhuis, then I’ll provide several links at the end of this article to give you some insight into the hullaballoo that is often Nienhuis v. RNRF. And let me make the clear distinction between the Sheriff’s discord with RNRF and the near flawless relationship we have with the men and women fighting crime on the streets. We are NOT anti-law enforcement.
Over the last few years, rumors that Nienhuis planned to encrypt police and fire radio frequencies has filled the “airwaves.” Numerous Deputies and Brooksville Police Officers would often say, “Hey Tom, you know we are probably going to an encrypted system soon, right?” One former high-ranking Brooksville Police Officer once told me, “Tom, I overheard Nienhuis talking about the ‘Tom Lemons Initiative’ today – meaning he plans to cut off your ability to monitor their radio traffic.” That was about a year ago and so far, we still have full access to all Public Safety Channels. But now that the 2018-19 HCSO Budget Proposal has been released, rumors of encryption have begun spinning again. So, to put the concerns to rest, I contacted the Sheriff’s Office, hoping to find answers.
The following email correspondence took place between Public Information Officer, Denise Moloney and RNRF, earlier this week.
March 14, 2018 – 1STEmail to Denise Moloney: (Bold lettering is Moloney’s response)
Could you please provide a detailed outline of operating expenditures for your communication services budget? If you are unable to locate the information you are requesting in our proposed budget, we will need more information. This request is too broad.
For years there have been rumors that HCSO would be encrypting radio communication devices to prevent citizens and members of the media from monitoring local public safety channels. Can you please confirm if this is true, and if so, please provide an accounting of all past and future funding that is allocated to this system? We do not have any records relating to a budget for encryption.
March 15, 2018 – 2NDEmail to Denise Moloney:
Regarding the line item for communication services, your budget proposal does not offer specific details for each item. What I am asking for is a detailed accounting of where each dollar is proposed to be spent. Please see the document that I have attached for you.
Your budget shows a combined proposed budget of $210,890 for communications. I am asking for an accounting of how you reached that number. I’m not sure how that question is “too broad.”
For example, there should be line items that says, “new radios $100,000” or “software $50,000.” If there are vendors for each line item, that should be available as well. There should also be an explanation for each use. Does that help explain what I am looking for?
Regarding the second questions, I’ll try rephrasing. Does your agency plan to encrypt radio traffic or make changes to your communications that would prevent the general public from monitoring all Sheriff’s Office radio traffic? We do not have a public record responsive to this request.
Moloney attached a document that provided an outline of cell phone cost that had nothing to do with radio communications. I readdressed the question in another email and requested to know which budget item would contain detailed information.
It should also be noted that Moloney often uses the response, “We do not have a public record responsive to this request,” whenever officials choose not to reply with a “yes,” “no,” or “no comment.” That answer leaves the question open for various interpretations, if the issue arises again at a later date. The rhetorical technique is used to intentional avoid answering questions, more commonly known as dodging or side-stepping.
March 15, 2018 – 3RDEmail to Denise Moloney
Are you saying that Sheriff Al Nienhuis doesn’t know whether he plans to make changes to your radio communications, so that the public and media cannot monitor radio traffic?
My question is not a record request, it is a direct question to the command staff.
I would like for you to ask the command staff that question.
Otherwise, I will ask the Board of County Commissioners investigate and present the question.
The only acceptable answers would be Yes, No, or No Comment. This is not an acceptable answer – “We do not have a public record responsive to this request.”
Furthermore, it appears that your Communication Services Budget has nothing to do with radio communications. Can you please tell me which line item in the proposed budget pertains to radio communications?
RNRF received no further response from Denise Moloney or any other official.
“Scannergate” or the “Tom Lemons Initiative” as the scandal is referred to among command staff, is just one of the many recent issues beleaguering RNRF. The Sheriff and his cohorts have initiated boycotts and defamation campaigns through their partners at Dawn Center for the last three years.
Just a few months ago, three woman made false reports to law enforcement, claiming that I was stalking and threatening to do harm to them. Ironically, one of the women who filed the false allegations is none other than April Johnson of Dawn Center. Sheriff Nienhuis happens to sit on the board of directors and recently resigned as President of the organization. Another woman, Donna Lipidarov, is a former auxiliary deputy and coincidently now works for a former Dawn Center Board Member. A third woman filed almost identical complaints at the same time and none of them claim to know each other. Thankfully, the detective found absolutely no evidence to support their claims and actually determined that probable cause exists to arrest two of them for stalking [me]. But Assistant State Attorney Conrad Juergensmeyer reviewed the cases and declined to not only prosecute the women for stalking but also for filing false reports. Juergensmeyer writes in part, “In order to charge an individual with filing a false police report, the State would have to show that an individual willfully (Knowingly and intentionally) gave false information about the commission of a crime…” Rhetorically speaking, how much more evidence does one need to make that determination? Three women, same claims, no evidence, and the Detective even says he would have arrested them?
But enough about the Sheriff’s personal animus towards me, it’s the forest that’s being hidden by the trees that the public is currently oblivious to. There are changes going on within the Public Information Office that may seem positive, progressive, and commendable, but don’t forget the biblical term, “wolves in sheep’s clothing?”
The Sheriff’s Office has been slowly converting their Public Information Officers into social media specialists and quasi-reporters for the last few years. They have all but abandoned the traditional media release format to media outlets and are now posting select information and local “news” reports on the agency’s Facebook page, as if they were an objective news source. But think about that just for a minute… A government agency converting its public information office into a newsroom. A government agency ending traditional information dissemination and broadcasting its own activity as objective news reporting. A government agency that is walking away from transparency, and decides which activities you can and cannot be privy to. How many times has the Sheriff’s Office declined to comment or entertain the idea of utilizing body worn cameras (BWC)? A program that is highly successful in Pasco County and is being implemented in hundreds of agencies across the nation.
State media or state-owned media is media for mass communication which is “controlled financially and editorially by the state. These news outlets may be the sole media outlet or may exist in competition with corporate and non-corporate media. – Wikipedia. Sound familiar?
Hugo Black, the late United States Supreme Court Justice who presided over the monumental New York Times Company v. United States case once said, “In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people.” If you aren’t familiar with the case, the New York Times and several other major newspapers sued the U.S. Government during the Nixon administration, to challenge an injunction that prohibited the publication of leaked top-secret documents – the media prevailed.
Now the above may sound a little mellow dramatic, but it’s the small unnoticeable changes that allow government agencies to creep in and overshadow our freedoms. It’s much harder to reverse an action once it’s in place than it is to preemptively confront and prevent politicians from boarding up windows and concealing their activities.
But at this point we have no idea if the Sheriff plans to encrypt their radio traffic or not, because as you can see from the above conversation, Nienhuis refuses to answer the question or provide evidence that taxpayer dollars are being spent on the program without your consent.
Once the agenda comes before the Board of County Commissioners, I’m sure the Sheriff will have to either deny or confirm the allegations and then the citizens of Hernando County can have their voices heard.
Chairman of the Board of County Commissioners Steve Champion already voiced his opinion on the matter, telling RNRF, “I believe in transparency. The public has the right to know what’s going on in government. I also think it’s a form of accountability knowing that anyone can be listening.”
During the first 4-hours of an RNRF poll posted to our sister page, RNRF Community, an overwhelming 92% said radio traffic should remain available to public access.
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