NAPLES — Campaign headquarters.
That’s what the Collier County Sheriff’s Office became last year during Sheriff Kevin Rambosk’s run for sheriff, according to Brigid O’Malley, the former supervisor of the agency’s Public Affairs Bureau and a leader in Rambosk’s campaign.
In her first interview since resigning from the agency in December amid accusations that she was abusive to employees and forced them to do on-duty campaign work, O’Malley, 43, alleged that on-duty campaign work was rife at the Sheriff’s Office, including illicit work done by the agency’s four chiefs — and by Rambosk himself.
She said she regularly told Rambosk of her concerns about the on-duty work.
O’Malley contends she is the scapegoat in a plan by former Sheriff Don Hunter to get rid of her and cripple the beginning of Rambosk’s administration.
“I was thrown under the bus and they backed up and backed up again and again,” O’Malley said. “They did way more than I was alleged to have done.”
When told of O’Malley’s comments, Rambosk said they are “outrageous claims” cooked up by a disgruntled former employee who violated the law, and who recently had been turned down for unemployment insurance. He pointed to a letter signed by O’Malley in January, in which she wrote that at no time was on-duty campaigning allowed, as evidence that she now is trying to “spin something up.”
Instead of going to the press, Rambosk said, O’Malley should file an official complaint.
“This is really getting annoying,” Rambosk said. “I’ve got to tell you, my family has gone through enough crap with this election.”
Still, despite the accusations of illegal campaign activity and unethical behavior, and several sustained policy violations against his former colleague, Rambosk recently wrote O’Malley a letter of recommendation.
Rambosk said it was a personal reference referring to O’Malley’s positive contributions to the community, the Sheriff’s Office and his campaign.
He said it doesn’t mean he believes O’Malley is innocent of the charges against her.
“In addition to what was founded through an investigative effort, not my effort, she had asked me for a reference regarding the contributions she made to this organization,” Rambosk said. “That’s essentially what I did. That’s what I’ve done in the past and that’s what I’ll always do.”
Vinny Angiolillo, one of Rambosk’s opponents in the 2008 election, has filed several complaints against Rambosk, including complaints with the Florida Election Commission. After hearing of O’Malley’s comments, Rambosk’s other 2008 opponent, private investigator Victor Ortino, said Rambosk should be stripped of his title.
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Resign or face an internal investigation — those were the options O’Malley said Hunter gave her in a meeting in early December when she was told about the accusations made against her by a former employee, Andrew Shaffer.
In his exit interview in November, Shaffer, 22, described O’Malley as an angry woman who was verbally abusive and forced him out of his job. He said once, when he had a broken finger, O’Malley battered him by grabbing his wrist, and pulling him out of a doorway.
“I have never pushed this kid in my life,” O’Malley said.
Shaffer hated his job, O’Malley said, and had been looking for some time to move to Jacksonville, where his girlfriend lives.
O’Malley said she believes Shaffer made up the story that he was forced out of his job only when he learned that Rambosk was trying to fill the position with his sister, Carolyn Rambosk Pisciotta.
O’Malley said it was Rambosk’s idea to bring his sister on board, a claim the sheriff denies.
“The desire was for Ms. O’Malley to have her here,” Rambosk said. “Ultimately she was never considered for a position.”
During their internal interviews, seven current and former members of O’Malley’s bureau described working for her as hostile — “like working in a mine field.”
O’Malley admits that she was an aggressive supervisor who “made mistakes,” but said she had to work her employees hard because “they had no self-starters in there at all.”
“I was very demanding,” she said. “I made them work.”
Still, O’Malley thought she got along well with her employees. She said it broke her heart to read what they said about her.
Rather than resign, O’Malley said, she told Hunter that the accusations against her weren’t true. She contends Rambosk told her to rat out her employees, to tell investigators “everything they did,” and to paint a picture of her office as a romper room.
After deciding to face investigation, O’Malley said she was told that the offenses she was initially accused of weren’t cause for firing. She was reassigned out of her bureau to an empty office where she says she did nothing.
However, O’Malley said she was soon told by a chief that Hunter “is going fishing on this,” and “if he goes fishing it’s going to be bad.”
On Friday, Dec. 12, O’Malley was informed that the Sheriff’s Office was conducting a criminal investigation. She was suspended with pay, and was to report Monday for an interview.
But on that Monday, O’Malley didn’t report for the interview. She said her attorney, Donald Day, told her she was going to be arrested.
“He said they are about to make you out like Al Capone,” O’Malley said. “He said ‘You’re going to resign,’ then he said ‘We’re going to send a letter saying we’re not going to answer any questions.’”
Rambosk and Chief Jim Williams, who oversaw the investigation, said there were no plans to arrest O’Malley.
“When she resigned we had not completed our investigation,” Williams said.
Day said that he told O’Malley that based on the rumors he’d heard, she could be arrested at any second — something he frequently tells clients. The rumors of O’Malley’s imminent arrest turned out to be false, he said.
Because she resigned under investigation, O’Malley wasn’t paid more than 311 hours of accrued vacation -- nearly $12,500.
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O’Malley’s face was hard to miss on Jan. 16, flashing on every television news channel in Southwest Florida, and on the Web site of the Daily News, where O’Malley had worked as an award-winning crime reporter before joining the Sheriff’s Office.
That day, the Sheriff’s Office released the findings of its internal investigation.
In addition to finding that O’Malley created a hostile work environment, the investigation also concluded that she had forced her employees to complete “Rambosk for sheriff campaign projects” while on duty.
The report described one employee, Jamie Mosbach, as a “full-time campaign employee” in the period before the primary. She said O’Malley directed her to create postcards, brochures, newsletters and other campaign materials on duty.
O’Malley said she explicitly told her employees that they couldn’t do campaign work on duty, though she said she suspected they were. None of them were ever targets of an investigation, she said.
“I saw things on (Mosbach’s computer) screen, and I would be telling her ‘You can’t do that here,’” O’Malley said. “It couldn’t have been clearer.”
But O’Malley said the idea that on-duty campaign work was limited to her bureau is nonsense.
“The entire building was campaign headquarters,” she said.
She said the agency’s four chiefs, including Williams, were all involved in campaign work while on duty, such as using their Nextel radios for campaign communication, passing fundraising checks in the hallway, talking campaign strategy behind closed doors, and keeping campaign materials in their offices.
Most of the people who conducted her internal investigation were involved, she said.
O’Malley points to a memo between two high-ranking officers regarding a campaign “meet and greet” as evidence that high-ranking law enforcement officers were lax about abiding by election laws.
“They should have known better that what they were doing is against policy, procedure and against the law,” O’Malley said. “They did know it and they didn’t care.”
Despite a signed affidavit from Rambosk stating that he wasn’t aware of any on-duty campaign work, O’Malley said she sat with him in his office “for hours” planning campaign messages, and ideas for his Web site and newsletters.
“Of course I knew it was wrong, and so did he,” she said. “Who outranks who? That’s what it’s all about.”
Rambosk denied the accusations.
“I’ll tell you why this is all occurring,” he said. “She applied for unemployment insurance. It was turned down. She appealed it, and apparently (Wednesday) it was turned down for a second time. Now she’s coming up with all of these complaints. It’s pretty obvious to me that she’s a disgruntled employee who violated the law as well as policy and procedures, having been advised not to from day one of the campaign.”
O’Malley said Williams conducted campaign fundraising in his office, forced deputies to attend campaign events, and directed investigators to pull reports on Ortino, who the Rambosk campaign was “very afraid of.”
She said Williams would talk to people about the campaign in his “dome of silence,” and chastised her and Rambosk for going off-duty for campaign functions because they are officially on duty 24 hours a day.
Williams denied doing any campaign work on duty or forcing anyone to attend events. He said he does use the term “dome of silence” to discuss things he doesn’t want to be made public, and he said he complimented Rambosk and O’Malley for going the extra mile to abide by the rules with their time cards.
“She’s mad at me,” Williams said. “Frankly, she expected me to weigh in and make it right. I wouldn’t do it for my dear departed mother, and I wouldn’t do it for Brigid O’Malley.”
O’Malley accused former sheriff Hunter of hosting “attacks on the agency” meetings, which she said were thinly disguised campaign meetings.
He also allowed the campaign to utilize agency cameras, as long as some of the photos were posted on the Sheriff’s Office’s Web site so they could officially say the cameras were used for agency purposes, O’Malley said.
Rambosk and Hunter “hated each other,” she said, adding that Hunter became “very jealous” of Rambosk at the end of his term. She said she believes Hunter, who frequently butted heads with her as a Daily News reporter, had it out for her.
“It comes down to Don Hunter having a personal grudge against me,” O’Malley said.
Hunter said he respected O’Malley’s work as a journalist and at the Sheriff’s Office.
“I had no long-term plan to lure her over so I could fire her,” he said. “That is ridiculous on its face. There was no such plot or plan.”
Hunter said the “attacks on the agency” meetings were legitimate meetings dealing with real attacks coming from political candidates. The meetings were not designed to further Rambosk’s campaign, he said.
Sheriff’s Office cameras were only used for legitimate agency purposes, and any images from them are public record that could be used by any campaign, Hunter said.
Hunter said he considers Rambosk a friend, admires and respects him, and was never jealous of him.
“I think Brigid was impassioned with the whole idea of the campaign,” Hunter said. “Perhaps her passion for the campaign and the good work Kevin could do if he were elected sheriff got in the way of her better judgment.”
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The public deserves to know what was happening during Rambosk’s campaign, O’Malley said, though the public apparently didn’t deserve to know before the election or before accusations were made against her.
“I believed in Kevin Rambosk,” O’Malley said. “Was I disgusted with this? Yeah, but I was also overwhelmed with things I had to do. I could have quit doing it.
“Do I think he would have won without me? No.”
O’Malley said she didn’t file an official complaint with the Sheriff’s Office or the FDLE, which has an open investigation into the case, because she doesn’t believe they would have been fair.
Rambosk can open an investigation on his own, she said.
“I want everyone who knew me as a journalist and at the Sheriff’s Office to know that there is another side to this,” said O’Malley, who wants to find new work in public service.
Ortino and Angiolillo said they believe O’Malley is telling the truth.
“I feel very cheated as a candidate who ran a very clean campaign, but I feel just as cheated as a taxpayer,” Ortino said. “(Rambosk) should be stripped of his title. He shouldn’t be able to keep his title of sheriff because he cheated.”
Rambosk said O’Malley has been threatening to make these claims “for quite awhile,” but he pointed to the signed statement by O’Malley in January as evidence that she’s making things up now.
“At no time did anyone direct or allow any campaigning activity to occur at the CCSO while on duty,” O’Malley wrote in her signed objections to the internal investigation. “Further, Mr. Rambosk went to extraordinary lengths to make sure no employee conducted any campaign business while on duty.”
She now says that she was referring only to herself in that letter.
“She clearly says, signed by her and her attorney, that there was nothing else occurring. Not by me. Not by anybody. So why now?” Rambosk said. “You can’t talk from both sides. It’s either one way or the other, so which is it?”