NEW PORT RICHEY (FOX 13) - Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco said he stands by his decision to give Taser International a $2 million no-bid contract for body cameras.
FOX 13 investigated events surrounding the contract, and discovered employees went on trips paid for by the vendor, the vendor made donations to Nocco's charity "Shoot-Out” event, and also hired his wife’s lobbying firm around the same time the sheriff granted the vendor the body camera contract.
Nocco said neither the donation, nor his wife's company's contract, nor the trips had any influence on his agency's contract.
“There's nothing hidden. We're hiding nothing,” Nocco said, responding to FOX 13’s questions about the contract.
The sheriff could not, however, explain why his spokesmen repeatedly claimed his emails with the vendor did not exist.
The sheriff is a publicly elected official whose communications are subject to Florida’s public record statutes.
FOX 13 requested emails between Nocco and Taser reps in 2014, the year he signed the $2 million contract. In response to the public records request, PCSO claimed there were no emails between Nocco and Taser reps in 2014.
The agency went as far as to attach a screenshot of what turned up in its search for Nocco’s emails with Taser reps – just a handful of emails in 2015, mostly mass mailings from Taser promoting its latest products, which the agency provided to FOX 13.
FOX 13 asked the Pasco Sheriff’s Office to check again.
“There are no 2014 emails on the subject,” spokesman Kevin Doll said in an email.
Actually, there were.
Buried in emails the agency produced in response to a public records request for emails between Major Mel Eakley - the man Nocco delegated to head up the body camera project - and Taser reps, were more than two dozen emails sent between Nocco and Taser reps not previously provided by the agency.
WATCH: Sheriff answers questions about his emails
During FOX’s interview with Nocco, spokesman Eddie Daniels continued to claim there were no 2014 emails, even interrupting as FOX 13 began to ask the sheriff about them. As the interview continued, Nocco suggested a crash of the agency’s email system may have wiped out his emails.
Daniels later said the sheriff misspoke.
“Sheriff Nocco mentioned an email malfunction that hit us system wide, but that took place months before our contract with any of the body camera vendors,” Eddie Daniels said in a statement emailed after the interview.
The statement also said, “The only emails between the sheriff and Taser have been provided to you.”
In the interview, Nocco eventually said he didn’t know what happened to his emails.
The agency had not offered an explanation, either, until hours before FOX 13’s investigation was scheduled to air – more than six months after the agency said there were no emails.
Spokesman Kevin Doll said they searched for the sheriff’s emails using an old system with “rudimentary” search capabilities, and the agency has since transitioned to a new system. When asked why the agency was able to produce hundreds of Eakley’s emails while still using the old system, but not a single email from 2014 with the sheriff, Doll said the emails may have been migrating from the old email system to the new one, resulting in the discrepancy.
The emails FOX 13 eventually obtained discussed a range of topics, including one on the day Taser landed the contract.
There were emails where Taser asked Nocco to endorse their products and he replied with written responses of endorsement. Also, emails from Taser asking for Nocco's input on a body camera bill in the Florida Legislature.
Members at government watchdog groups said they are concerned.
“I find it very troubling that the sheriff could not produce those records in response to a public records request,” said Barbara Peterson, president of the First Amendment Foundation.
“We have a right - and in Florida, it’s a constitutional right - to oversee our government and to hold our government accountable.”
“Whether that’s an intentional violation of the law or unintentional violation of the law, I think it does constitute a violation,” she added. FOX 13 is a member of the First Amendment Foundation.
Peter Butzin, with Common Cause Florida also said the agency’s response regarding emails is concerning.
“There seems to be a clear and compelling case that email records were not turned over,” Butzin said.
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