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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Gazette: Sheriff Michael Jackson ordered to rescind reprimand of whistleblower

Prince George's sheriff ordered to rescind reprimand of union president; Cease alleges he was punished after an audit revealed alleged embezzlement.
Gazette, 16 Aug 2010 (Noble).
A Prince George's County judge Friday ordered Sheriff Michael Jackson to remove a reprimand given to the sheriff's union president for speaking out about alleged embezzlement within the union from former union leaders.

In a civil case filed against Jackson, the sheriff's office and Assistant Chief Sheriff Paul Drula, union president Robert Cease alleged he has been threatened with reprimands and termination for publicizing an audit that resulted in the indictment of two former union leaders who are high-ranking members of the sheriff's agency.

Circuit Court Judge William Cave ordered the sheriff's office to remove a reprimand Cease received from the office after he began speaking out about the audit findings.

"There will be no reprimands against him for what he is doing as union president," Cave said. "If there is some difference of opinion on what he says, I hope we can enter into cooperation."

As union president, Cease ordered an audit of the organization and eventually the findings were turned over to the Office of the Maryland State Prosecutor, which handed down a three-count indictment to acting Capt. Wendy Tyler and Capt. Nancy Ridgely on theft charges. The indictment states Tyler, the former Deputy Sheriff's Association president, stole $11,000 from the union and used union credit cards to pay for personal expenses such as a trip to Las Vegas and surgery. Ridgely, as vice president, signed off on paychecks that inflated the stipend Tyler was supposed to receive as union president, the indictment states.

Cease was reprimanded after Tyler filed a complaint against him, alleging he had blackmailed her by saying he would turn the audit over to prosecutors unless she resigned from the sheriff's office, Drula said.

During the hearing Friday, both Jackson and Drula said they did not seek to investigate the audit findings or conduct any internal investigation when Cease provided copies of the audit report.

"I characterized it as poor record-keeping," Drula said in a videotaped deposition played in the courtroom. "It was not an agency issue; it was a union issue, and we would not be involved."

Tyler was later promoted from lieutenant to acting captain, Drula said.

During testimony, Jackson, who is currently running for county executive, said that because Cease is an employee of the sheriff's office, he is able to decide when Cease's speech is lawful and when it is not.

In the time since, Cease said he has faced an unfair medical board hearing which heavily favored the department sending him out on a disability retirement and was kicked off the scene of a departmental shooting this month, where he was working with a deputy who shot and killed a dog during a Forest Heights eviction.

Assistant Attorney General H. Scott Curtis said Cease did not need to be within the crime scene tape to talk to a deputy involved in the shooting, an act that is a regular responsibility of a union president. He also argued that Cease voluntarily agreed to the reprimand.

"This case today isn't about me. It's about being able to represent the union membership," Cease said.

Cease's attorney said the sheriff's office actions have had a negative impact.

"It's chilling if [Cease] says I can't speak for you union members because I might be reprimanded or fired," said attorney Timothy Maloney.

The sheriff's office has 30 days to appeal the decision. Curtis said he would have to discuss the possibility of an appeal with his office and the sheriff before making a decision.

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