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Pinellas deputy reprimanded for chewing tobacco in Iraq

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Published:   |   Updated: July 9, 2013 at 06:38 AM

LARGO - After U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. James Bonanno was put in charge of two gun trucks at Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq, he started chewing tobacco to relieve stress over his new job.

At the time, it didn't occur to Bonanno he was violating a policy put in place by his stateside employer, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which reprimanded him for it. Bonanno is a detention deputy at the county cail, which is overseen by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, and Gualtieri's employees are prohibited from using tobacco products.

After internal affairs investigators at the sheriff's office got wind of Bonanno's tobacco use, they launched an investigation. Bonanno was frank and apologetic about the transgression and received a written reprimand, according to a 79-page internal affairs case file made public last week.

"I was dealing with what I had to deal with over there," he explained during a transcribed interview with internal affairs investigators.

Bonanno declined to be interviewed for this story.

His chewing-tobacco use came to light in April, after he applied for a transfer to patrol duty. As part of the transfer application, Bonanno was interviewed and took a polygraph test.

The 29-year-old, who has worked for the sheriff's office since 2007, racked his brain to see if had done anything that might jeopardize his application and thought of his tobacco chewing, the file says. He told Sgt. Jennifer Olley he had chewed during a nine-month deployment in Iraq, in 2009 and 2010, and had dipped once during a weekend exercise at Camp Blanding in February.

Bonanno told investigators he started using tobacco in Iraq because he was "just stressed out."

Typically, he would go through a can of chewing tobacco in about three days, he told internal affairs investigators.

When they asked him whether he knew he was violating sheriff's office policy, Bonanno said, "It was a thought when I got back. When I got back, I left what I did over there, there."

As for the Camp Blanding dip, Bonanno said he was with some other sergeants, training with M4 carbine machine guns, when the others started dipping while they were all sitting around.

"Someone had a dip, so I took a dip and didn't think anything of it," he told investigators. "It's something I used to do when I was on active duty before coming to this agency.

"It's not something I normally do since being out of the Army and being in this job with this agency," Bonanno told internal affairs investigators. "I don't dip at home. I don't dip at work. It's not something I normally do on a daily occurrence. ... I just [happened] to make a bad decision.

"I screwed up, but I don't use it anymore."

Anyone hired after October 2004 is prohibited from using tobacco products, according to the sheriff's office policy.

Typically, anyone found violating the agency's policy is given a five-day suspension, said Gualtieri. But the sheriff reclassified the transgression to a less-serious category and then decided on the written reprimand as punishment.

"We did give him a break," Gualtieri said. "I took into consideration what I would characterize as the appropriate mitigating factors of how this occurred and how it came to light."

Had Bonanno not taken the dip in Camp Blanding, he might not have been punished at all, the sheriff said.

"He did it and admitted it, and it's out there," Gualtieri said. "I had to do something with it.

"He got no time off, and he lost nothing," the sheriff said. "It was a slap on the hand that said, 'Don't do it.'

"I did everything I could to mitigate it and make it as minimal as you could possibly do,' the sheriff said.

In addition to admitting his tobacco use, Bonanno opted not to have his union attorney present during his interview. His last two evaluations have been stellar.

The reprimand did not stand in the way of Bonanno's application. He is in training to become a patrol deputy.

sthompson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-6504

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