Former fleet director should be prosecuted
Hernando TodayThe issue: State attorney's probe of former county fleet director Jack Stepongzi. Our opinion: Lack of prosecution sends disturbing message to taxpayers, mixed message to county employees.
Published: January 15, 2010
Published: January 15, 2010
So here's the deal: A lazy county department head with appalling performance evaluations and bad ethics takes kickbacks from a supplier but suffers no prosecution after being caught.
That's the message sent in the case of former county fleet director Jack Stepongzi, whose "commissions" from a county supplier didn't reach the level of criminal activity, according to the assistant state attorney who examined evidence from an investigation by the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.
Last week, Assistant State Attorney Mark Simpson concluded that Stepongzi's ill-gotten side income didn't merit prosecution. Instead, Simpson said Stepongzi's $322 in kickbacks were more an ethical violation than a criminal one because the county and its taxpayers weren't out any money, the contract was secured before the payments were made and Stepongzi no longer works for the county.
We call that rug-and-a-broom prosecution.
We also think it's nonsense. Taking kickbacks from a supplier who wins a bid on a county contract violates the public trust. It's corruption - pure and simple.
Stepongzi was a mid-level manager for Hernando County, running its much-maligned fleet department. He was hired to turn the department around after the former fleet manager resigned under the cloud of another unfavorable audit of the department.
Instead, Stepongzi basically sat on his thumbs, went on long lunches with a number of fleet department suppliers, came to work late and left early, used the county's time and resources to run a side business and did little if anything to improve the department.
Stepongzi was such a bad manager that his boss, Department of Public Works Director Charles Mixson, had given him the worst performance evaluations of any employee he had managed during his career.
Those evaluations must have been really bad considering Mixson's track record. Mixson, who has been on the county administrator's naughty list for more than a year, has a bad habit of overseeing major projects that take years longer to complete than expected and cost taxpayers millions more than anticipated. But that's another editorial.
Although Mixson kept threatening Stepongzi if his performance didn't improve, months later Stepongzi was still on the job, goofing off and taking kickbacks. Mixson showed little accountability in making sure the problems in the fleet department were solved.
Mixson was part of the problem.
If not for Hernando Today reporter Mike Bates, who confronted Stepongzi about the kickbacks and broke the story, Stepongzi would probably be leading the fleet department to this day.
Public officials have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayer to do what's in the public's best interest. Stepongzi broke that trust. Make no mistake, his actions cost the taxpayers money.
Letting Stepongzi off the hook to walk away to another job and another victim is irresponsible. He should be prosecuted.
We're disappointed in the state attorney's office for not prosecuting this case, regardless of its preconceived outcome. It sends the wrong message to taxpayers and a mixed message to county employees.
To those like Stepongzi, it emboldens their laziness and corruption.