EEOC complaint details Marco police discrimination, information leaks, potential perjury

Details in a discrimination complaint against the Marco Island police department reveal the police chief and a councilor sought former manager's ouster.

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Explosive allegations contained in an EEOC complaint filed against the Marco Island Police Department not only allege gender discrimination but state Chief Al Schettino leaked information about a battery investigation into the former city manager and along with a former councilman, sought his ouster.

Police records clerk Heather Comparini filed a complaint with the EEOC-Miami District Office in December which outlines a history of discriminatory action taken against her by Schettino and the city’s failures to properly investigate her claims.

“Schettino is highly resistant to having women under his command or on his staff and he utilizes bullying tactics and harassment to target women because he perceives their gender as weaker,” Comparini wrote.

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Police Chief Al Schettino defends the Marco Island Police Department last year as he accuses Councilor Larry Honig of attempting to undermine it. Marco Eagle

In response to questions about the complaint, Capt. Dave Baer issued a statement on behalf of Schettino.

"With respect to your request for a comment from Chief Schettino – Due to state and federal law, the city does not comment on pending discrimination complaints," Baer wrote in an email to the Marco Eagle.

More: Public records show police records clerk accused of leaking Niblock investigation

More: Marco Island police chief intends to retire June 15

Comparini initiated the complaint against the department after Schettino accused her last year of leaking information about the investigation into former City Manager Lee Niblock and directed the city’s legal firm to draw up termination papers.

Prior to the Collier County Sheriff’s Office being called to take over proceedings, which eventually led to a misdemeanor charge and Niblock’s termination, Marco Island police began an investigation after Marco Island Academy Principal Melissa Scott came forward on Feb. 6, 2018, with a complaint that Niblock had made several inappropriate physical and verbal overtures toward her.

Emails, memos and notes obtained through public records requests showed Comparini was accused of reading a confidential document sent to a public printer on Feb. 9 and then leaking that a battery complaint had been made against Niblock through a text message.

That text message eventually found its way to City Councilor Larry Honig, who immediately contacted City Attorney Alan Gabriel and Niblock regarding its veracity.

In a text message to Gabriel and Niblock Feb. 9, Honig wrote that “I accidentally came across a report that the CM made advances towards the principal Melissa Scott.”

A review of the termination notes sent to the city’s labor attorney on Feb. 13 showed Schettino cast blame in the direction of Comparini and requested a termination letter be drawn up.

“On Friday, Feb. 9, 2018 at approximately 10:30 a.m., Sergeant Mark Haueter was walking past the main printer located outside the lobby area, when he was handed a confidential document by Police Records Clerk Heather Comparini, which he recognized as being a draft version of notes pertaining to a confidential investigation currently underway involving the city manager and the principal of Marco Island Academy,” Schettino wrote. “Sergeant Haueter recognized the document because he had assisted me 30 minutes earlier in retrieving the same document from this main printer. When Heather handed the document to Sergeant Haueter, she stated she had found it on the printer. She went on to say, that she began reading the first few lines, realized it was confidential, stopped reading it and turned it over to Sergeant Haueter.”

The meeting that changed everything

Three days later, Comparini was escorted into a meeting with Schettino, Detective Richard Stoltenborg, Capt. Nick Ojanovac and Human Resources manager Leslie Sanford, the complaint states.

Comparini wrote that she was instructed to sit across from Schettino and she noted the hostility directed her way.

“Our respective positions, at Schettino's insistence, was clearly intended to intimidate me,” Comparini wrote. “He was the only one who spoke. His nonverbal demeanor was anger. His voice was raised and his tone was accusatory.”

Comparini wrote that the hostility continued after she denied disseminating the information to which Schettino allegedly made claims of having proof that she was the leak.

“Upon hearing my response, Schettino slammed his fist on the table and aggressively accused me of having found the report in the printer/copier tray, not on the counter nearby, insinuating that I purposely removed it from the printer so as to read it," Comparini wrote. “ … Schettino continued the interrogation by aggressively demanding that I check my phone and inform him whether there was such a text on it, to which I responded that there was not. Schettino then yelled, ‘Are you sure about that answer, because when you get up from that chair, you are done!’”

Despite Schettino’s claims of proof, Comparini wrote that he has not produced anything to support his claims.

In May, Gabriel wrote in an email to the Marco Eagle that he was unable to produce the text messages referenced in the conversation with Schettino.

“I never saw or received the referenced text message nor am I aware if such a text message ever existed,” Gabriel wrote.

Furthermore, Comparini was able to prove her case by obtaining text messages sent by then-Sgt. Neil Giansanti, which showed he had sent the original message. Knowing Honig was the final recipient, Comparini was able to back trace the text back to its original source. Comparini wrote that had the police department conducted a thorough investigation, it would have known that Giansanti was at the public printer at the time she found the confidential document.

Despite Sanford’s attendance at the meeting as well as Comparini’s attorney, Neil Snyder, no investigation was ever launched into Schettino or how the police investigation could have led to Comparini being wrongly accused.  

Comparini wrote that Sanford contacted her in a public setting in November and claimed that she had just been informed about the claims, which were brought up in former Marco Island police officer Kevin Hennings' civil case; in which he claimed the city illegally Baker Acted him.

Comparini was drawn into that case as Hennings' lawyers at the time requested to depose Comparini about her complaint.

Sanford, who described herself as a low-level employee, told the Marco Eagle that she didn't learn about the complaint until after the fact and was never sent a copy of Snyder's letter describing the discriminatory behavior.

"It may not come to me unless I'm cc'd on it," Sanford said. 

Asked why she did not investigate Schettino's behavior despite being in the room, Sanford responded, "I didn't see it as that." 

Sanford also put the impetus on Comparini to file a complaint with the city. Yet, she asked nearly nine months later if Comparini wanted to talk about what transpired, the complaint stated. 

While Sanford said investigating claims was not part of her job and that it fell to the city manager, duties on the city's Government Jobs webpage state her position "receives and responds to employee inquiries, concerns and complaints (and) facilitates resolution."

A records request made for notes taken at the Feb. 16 meeting also revealed that Sanford did not take any. Comparini noted in her complaint that Sanford only "sat silent."

Prior to filing the EEOC complaint, Snyder requested a copy of the leak investigation file at least six times with the most recent communication with the city revealing there appeared to be no movement in the investigation. Despite there being no activity, the city has kept the investigation open.

It was said in an email from the city attorney, however, that the file may be closed. Comparini wrote that she took the city's actions as a ploy to make it difficult for her to move forward with prosecuting her complaints.

The aftermath

Shaken by what had transpired on Feb. 16, Comparini wrote that she “was kept on pins and needles” every Friday afternoon because that is when bad news is handed out. Along with a fear of termination, Comparini said Schettino's actions resulted in both physical and mental ailments including extreme stress, trouble sleeping, nightmares and dramatic weight loss.

The following month, the department took several actions to add to Comparini’s uneasiness.

It first started when her key card was deactivated. Then, a part-time employee in the code department was assigned to cross-train and learn her job. In April and May. Schettino’s assistant, Sharon Kovacs, was sent to learn her job, but according to Comparini, it was more to look over her shoulder.

“Kovacs never attempted to perform any of my tasks, or to actually learn my duties,” Comparini wrote. “Rather, she simply sat or stood behind me and watched, which I found both distracting and distressing. I did inform her that she was distracting to me, but in reply, she said that Schettino required her to do it.”

Comparini also noted that Schettino began to walk into her office and look at her computer screens before leaving without saying a word.

Things came to a head in June when Schettino gave interviews to the Marco Eagle and Coastal Breeze about the investigation leaks and failed to exonerate Comparini.

In the Coastal Breeze article, the complaint states that Schettino now said that he had printed the confidential report to an unsecured printer due to a maintenance upgrade despite Haueter admitting that he had done so.

An affidavit signed by code enforcement employee Jim Deatherage also corroborates Comparini’s version of events when she saw the document and Haueter’s response.

Comparini pointed out no discipline was administered to Haueter despite a violation of department policy, which former Marco Island Sgt. Mike Vogel also questioned when he emailed the City Council months later.

“As a male, Haueter's explanation of his ‘mistake’ was accepted without question or issue,” Comparini wrote. “However, I, as a woman, was subjected to police escort to a formal meeting involving both HR and a police detective, and was subjected to criminal style interrogation, verbal abuse, and bullying with false accusations.

“Schettino made every attempt to force me to admit to something that was known to be not true, to admit to something that I simply had not done. My complete and truthful answers to Schettino's questions were given no credence for the truth, notwithstanding my years of service and my unblemished record.”

Comparini's complaint does not offer a reason as to why she felt Schettino continued to target her other than to state that he perceives women as weaker.

Records requests submitted by Comparini’s attorney also cast doubt on Schettino’s claims that maintenance work was being done.

Rewriting history?

While Schettino attempted to terminate Comparini for what he deemed “a direct violation of policy and breach of trust,”a summary of events contained in the complaint suggests he was guilty of the same offenses one day earlier.

On Feb. 8, Schettino emailed City Council and Gabriel that a complaint had been made against an employee and the police department would be opening up an inquiry. 

While Schettino did not name the employee, the email was in reference to a complaint being launched against Niblock two days prior.

As councilors became suspicious about the email, they too were given no additional information as the investigation was ongoing. At that juncture, the victim had yet to provide a sworn written statement against Niblock.

The same day, however, Schettino and now-former City Councilor Bob Brown had a closed-door meeting in which they discussed the case, the complaint stated.

After leaving Schettino’s office, Comparini wrote that Brown spoke to then-Sgt. Micheal Vogel about Niblock with her present in the room.

“Brown seemed very excited about something "big" that was going to happen in the next week,” Comparini wrote. “Vogel asked if it involved him, to which Brown responded that it involved the ‘Big Guy’ next door. Brown continued by saying that ‘we want to get rid of him.’”

Responding via email to a request for comment regarding what was contained in the complaint, Brown wrote, "I am not aware of any complaints, Federal or otherwise so I cannot comment."

Vogel’s recollection of the events during a phone interview with the Marco Eagle Sunday evening was verbatim to what Comparini had alleged.

While Comparini originally thought the collective “we” Brown stated referred to City Council, that was not the case as five out of its seven members resisted terminating Niblock when it met on Feb. 20.

Despite being the only other person besides Brown to vote in favor of termination, Honig said it was not in conjunction with Brown and was based upon his own interactions with Niblock and Marco Island Academy Chairperson Jane Watt.

"By the time of the Feb. 20 meeting, I knew a great deal about what was alleged against Niblock because of what Jane Watt told me on Feb. 2 and an extensive conversation with Niblock on Feb. 5," Honig said. "On Feb. 19, the day before the meeting, I suggested to Niblock that he apologize and resign.

"Instead, on Feb. 20, he did not apologize. He denied the charges and asked for a leave. When councilor Brown made the motion to dismiss Niblock, I seconded it because I felt council deserved to have a discussion."

Vogel also stated that he heard Schettino tell Brown that they had to get Niblock out otherwise Schettino would be forced to leave.

Brown's alleged comments to Vogel also contradict information he provided in a sworn statement to the Collier County Sheriff's Office as to what he knew and when he knew it.

In an interview with Sgt. Wade Williams and Sgt.Raul Roman that was audio-recorded, Brown was given the opportunity to explain his knowledge of the case from the beginning.

After Schettino's Feb. 8 email, Brown said that he heard Niblock may have been involved through questions that were asked of him.

Brown told Williams and Roman that he spoke to Gabriel the following day and inquired more about Schettino’s email and rumor of it involving the city manager.

“I’m hearing by virtue of being questioned by individuals on the island that this may have to do with our current city manager,” Brown recalled of his conversation with Gabriel.

Despite being placed under oath, Brown, however, neglected to mention his meeting with Schettino or what he was told then, lending credence to the appearance of his statements to the Sheriff's Office being untrue.

He also told Williams and Roman he had no involvement until Schettino emailed the council the following week, disclosing that Niblock was under investigation, despite Brown allegedly telling Vogel something would happen the following week and that they wanted Niblock gone.

“I didn’t want to carry any tales personally, so I didn’t,” Brown said in his sworn statement. “I left everything 100 percent alone until the second email from our police chief, which was the 16th of February.”

Brown's statement to the Sheriff's Office also mirrored what he said at the City Council's Feb. 20 meeting before he motioned to terminate Niblock.

“I’m an advocate to allow due process to continue, but it’s critically important that we make a significant change to leadership of our community,” Brown said.

These types of claims to the public continued as more and more residents and councilors grew curious about what was going on the behind-the-scenes leading up to Niblock's removal.

At the first meeting in May following the state attorney's office charging Niblock with one count of misdemeanor battery, Brown repeated some of his comments and added he learned more about the complaint from outside sources, not the city attorney.

“My issue that I had right out the get-go was that I was one of the people that did learn about this fairly early on,” Brown said. “Interestingly enough, I learned about it early on completely out of the city. I was actually hearing issues being brought forward to me.”

Despite the city being in possession of the complaint for months, it has not investigated the claims that Schettino disseminated information about Niblock to Brown. 

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