[PHOTO CREDIT: Facebook / Mount Dora Police Department]
[Original Publish Date: 08/17/20]
MOUNT DORA, Florida — The former deputy chief of Mount Dora Police Department who was fired last month says he is a whistleblower and is demanding his job back, according to a petition filed in Lake County Circuit Court August 10.
Michael Fewless, who served as deputy chief for MDPD for less than a year, filed a written whistleblower’s complaint on the city June 26. “The complaint included allegations of hostile work environment, favoritism for one specific employee which also may be described as nepotism, lack of truthfulness and candor, and derogatory comments towards and about City Staff and the City Manager,” his petition states. He was fired July 21, just 25 days later. Fewless is represented by Ryan Andrews of Andrews Law in Tallahassee.
The petition states Fewless was fired for engaging in a protected activity and was terminated. He is demanding temporary reinstatement of his position and benefits.
“The City of Mount Dora made a grievous mistake. I am not sure they will have the money to fix it either,” Andrews told Lake Legal News in an email.
On July 17, Fewless met with LLN to discuss improving media relations with MDPD (When LLN arrived at Fewless’ office, Chief Robert Bell was leaning against a nearby wall and appeared displeased to have LLN inside the department.)
During the meeting, Fewless and LLN discussed working together to build a better relationship. LLN purposely works hard to build and maintain open and transparent relationships with all local public safety agencies to keep information flowing from the agency, to LLN and finally to the public. Information about criminal activity in the community is a matter of public concern, and the media’s relationship with law enforcement is as well. It is valuable to build a level of trust between law enforcement and the public, in which the media plays a major role. It was the goal of both LLN and Fewless to begin creating that transparency.
Following the discussion, LLN inquired if there were any updates on two active cases and Fewless took LLN to the office of Capt. Coy Hunter. Afterwards, Fewless introduced LLN to Patrol Capt. Michael Gibson, who was also helpful and offered his assistance in building an open relationship. LLN departed the meeting confident that a clear path had been forged to build communication between MDPD and the media.
Later that same afternoon, Fewless sent an email to City Manager Robin Hayes, following up on his June 26 complaint; Coy Hunter, Michael Gibson, Kenneth Hinman and William Wade are all copied on the email.
That email states:
“On June 26, 2020, Captain Hunter, Captain Gibson and I filed a complaint with you regarding Chief Bell. On July 2, 2020 you officially met with us as a group to include Lieutenant Wade and Lieutenant Hinman to advise us that Chief Bell had decided to retire from the City of Mount Dora. You outlined several stipulations that both parties needed to follow and asked us if we were satisfied with the way this complaint was handled. We reluctantly agreed to your terms, and felt that Chief Bell would ultimately violate them, in which he did. It has been 21 days since we filed the original complaint, and nothing has been done to improve the atmosphere at the police department.
In our combined experience in law enforcement, we are sad to say we have never seen a complaint of such great importance handled in this matter. As of this date, the command staff is dissatisfied with the handling of the original complaint filed on June 26, 2020 and believe retaliation is imminent. We are hereby restating and invoking our rights under the Whistleblower Protection Act and rescinding our previous agreement of satisfaction.
In order to verify that all of the Command Staff is in support of this email, I have copied them on my response. If you need further clarification on this matter, please do no hesitate to contact me.
Fewless was fired just two business days later. The official reason for his termination, according to a public document, was for speaking with the media – LLN— without authorization, a violation of policy. LLN met with Mount Dora city officials July 29 in person (including City Manager Robin Hayes, Mayor Cathy Hoechst and Public Information Officer Lisa McDonald). City Attorney Sherry Sutphen appeared by phone.
Prior to the meeting, LLN was tipped off to the “no confidence” complaint filed by the MDPD command staff and made a public records request for the letter and several other documents. McDonald failed to provide anything to LLN signed by the command staff and only provided anonymous letters by email with a stern warning:
“In providing the requested documents to you, I want to call to your attention the fact that all such communications have been provided to the City without signature or through an anonymous email address. These communications can only be characterized as unsubstantiated comments, notes or statements. We provide these documents to you as required by law, but we ask that you use your utmost discretion when reporting due to the unsubstantiated nature of the same. The use of names and/or of unsubstantiated information could have serious repercussions on City of Mount Dora employees.
Attached is the requested documents.”
Although McDonald failed to provide the requested documents to LLN in full, they were nonetheless provided to a private citizen who forwarded them to LLN. At the in-person meeting July 29, LLN asked McDonald why she failed to provide the complaint signed by the command staff and Sutphen loudly told McDonald not to answer LLN’s question.
In the same meeting, LLN asked for an explanation of Fewless’ termination and officials refused to answer those questions, as well.
As of Aug. 7, Hunter, who also spoke to LLN on July 17, was “relieved of duty” pending an internal investigation, according to an email provided to LLN by a private citizen. McDonald did not return an email asking several questions about Hunter that LLN sent Thursday shortly after 11 a.m., and just over 24 hours later, on Friday, City Clerk Gwen Johns emailed LLN and said, “Please accept this acknowledgement that we have received and are working on the request you sent on Thursday, August 13, 2020.”
LLN’s questions still had not been answered by press time Monday.
Our Editor-in-Chief, Marilyn M. Aciego, began writing for Lake Legal News in 2010. Born and raised in Lake County, she is a graduate of Umatilla High School and Lake-Sumter State College. She started her journalism career at LSSC, where she was editor of both student publications, The Angler and The Odyssey. Her professional career began at the Daily Commercial in 2004 where she covered cops and courts the majority of her time there until she left in 2009. Currently, along with being Editor-in-Chief of Lake Legal News, she is the Florida bureau chief for an international media organization. She has made more than two dozen appearances on live national television, including Nancy Grace and the Greta Van Susteren show, along with her appearance on Evil Twins. Contact her with breaking news, tips, and feedback by sending an e-mail to 352Tips@gmail.com. You can also contact us on our Facebook page — and make sure you “Like” and “Follow us” there. [PHOTO CREDIT: Bonnie Whicher]