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Changes at the Sheriff's Office

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Three top Blair assistants gone

By Jim Clark
Marion County has a new sheriff after Chris Blair was suspended following his indictment on perjury charges, and he has already started to clean house.
Late Friday afternoon, it was announced that Blair had been arrested and bonded out about an hour earlier.
Gov. Rick Scott suspended Blair and replaced him with Emery Gainey, a 34-year veteran of law enforcement who once served in a high-ranking capacity in the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office. At the time of his appointment, he was in charge of the Florida Attorney General Division of Victim Services and Criminal Justice Programs.
Then on Saturday, Sheriff Gainey suspended two MCSO Majors and placed them on paid administrative leave, according to a news release.
“Major Don Maines over the Bureau of Professional Standards and Major Tommy Bibb over the Bureau of Special Investigations have been placed on paid administrative leave during this transition period at the MCSO. There is no active MCSO Internal Affairs investigation being conducted related to these suspensions. The suspension period is unknown at this time as Sheriff Gainey is in the preliminary stages of his transition
“Sheriff Gainey knows these are tough decisions during very difficult times, but Sheriff Gainey is dedicated to the task of providing a stable and professional law enforcement agency for the citizens of Marion County.”
Early this week, Chief Deputy Fred LaTorre announcec his retirement as of June 1.
According to Scott’s office on Friday, “Gainey received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida and also graduated from the FBI National Academy. He will serve as the as Marion County Interim Sheriff until the election of a new Sheriff in November, at which point he will return to the Attorney General’s Office.”
Attorney General Pam Bondi added, “I know first-hand that Governor Rick Scott has chosen a highly qualified person to lead the Marion County Sheriff’s Office during this challenging time. Emery Gainey has managed my office with the highest level of ethics and integrity while serving as my Director of Victim Services. With his more than 25 years of law enforcement experience, the people of Marion County can rest assured that they are in good hands with Interim Sheriff Gainey running the office.”
The indictment and suspension were announced about 4 p.m. Friday by Lauren Lettelier, a public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office. In her note she said that Blair was indicted “for two counts of perjury in an official proceeding and one count of offical misconduct. At 2:51 p.m. on Friday, Blair was booked into the Marion County Jail and then posted his bond at 3:31 p.m.”
She also said, “The MCSO is going through an immediate transition and will provide further information in a responsible and timely manner.”
The irony of this occurring during the election season is not lost on local citizens. Four years ago, Dan Kuhn defeated Blair in the Republican primary. Soon after, though, Kuhn was forced to withdraw after a sex scandal, and GOP officials chose Blair to carry the party standard against an independent challenger in November. However, to vote for Blair one had to vote for Kuhn, because the ballots had been printed before Kuhn dropped out. Blair won the race easily.
Now it’s Blair who may not be a viable candidate despite raising the most money in the election. It’s early enough, however, that the ballot printing issue will not surface.
Two candidates to replace Blair issued statements Saturday.
Billy Woods, a Republican, said, “My heart and prayers go out to the men and women of the Marion County Sheriff’s Office. What all citizens of Marion County need to remember is that these alleged wrong doings did not come from the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, but rather, it came from the Office of the Sheriff. The MCSO has endured tough times before, and as before, with great strength and humility they will weather this storm, always holding their course of protecting and serving this community. There is a long road ahead for the MCSO and the healing process begins now. I take no pleasure or satisfaction during this unfortunate situation. However, my campaign remains strong, unchanged and I will move forward as I seek the Office of the Marion County Sheriff.”
A Democratic candidate, Dennis McFatten, said, “For me it’s not a time of celebration, but an opportunity to plead with the citizens of Marion County to unite and support the men and women of the Sheriff’s Office. Let us remember that the actions of a few don’t define the overall professionalism that I know to exist within the agency. Please keep our MCSO family as well as the Blair family in your prayers”
County Commission Chairman Kathy Bryant issued the following statement: “While we are disappointed to learn of the charges brought against Sheriff Chris Blair, we must not forget that many good men and women serve in the Marion County Sheriff’s Office with honor and dedication, and they will continue to serve and protect this community under the interim leadership of the governor’s appointee, Emery Gainey. We are confident that this agency will rise above this difficult time, and we encourage all citizens of Marion County to embrace and support the hardworking men and women of the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.”
Gainey met with all deputies about a half hour before a press conference Friday, since all personnel had to be sworn in to serve under the new sheriff.
At the press conference, Gainey said that “we’re going to provide outstanding professional level law enforcement service.
“The community will remain our first priority.”
When asked if Blair could still enter the Sheriff’s Office, Gainey said the he was still a Marion County citizen and would have the same access as the rest of the public.
The charges stem from Blair’s testimony concerning alleged excessive force charges regarding the arrest of Dustin Heathman. Blair testified he only saw his back, but the grand jury says that Blair “knew the statement was false because while Dustin Heathman was handcuffed, dressed in his underwear, escorted by two deputy sheriffs and with apparent injuries to his face, he was led in the front of Chris Blair so close that Chris Blair had to step back to let Dustin Heathman and the deputies pass by.”
The second count of perjury comes from similar testimony to the grand jury, as does the official misconduct charge.

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