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Smithsburg's police chief was let go from Frederick County

March 29, 2000|By KIMBERLY YAKOWSKI

SMITHSBURG - Smithsburg's new police chief, Ralf Berger, was fired five years ago from the Frederick County Sheriff's Office on administrative charges of misleading prosecutors and misappropriation of property, among other things.

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Mayor Tommy Bowers and two members of the Town Council said they were aware that Berger, 45, had been fired when they hired him March 7.

They said, however, they did not know the full details of the charges.

Despite that, Bowers and Council member Dave Williams said they continue to support Berger.

Berger declined to comment when asked about the charges, all of which were administrative. He was not charged criminally.

A 15-year veteran of the Frederick County Sheriff's Office, Berger, a sergeant, was fired in April 1995 by Sheriff James W. Hagy following a four-day administrative hearing.

He was found guilty of 23 of 32 administrative charges, including allowing a defendant to escape punishment by influencing the prosecutor, misappropriation of property, wire tap violations and falsification of time sheets.

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Berger appealed, but lost in Frederick County Circuit Court in January 1997.

He worked as a motorcycle mechanic and cable television technician until a month ago when he was sworn in as Smithsburg police chief.

Bowers nominated Berger or the job during the council's March 7 meeting. Councilmen Charlie Slick, Michael Rohrer, James Cunningham and David Williams voted in favor of hiring him.

Councilman Thomas Hornbecker voted no, saying later he wanted to see results of a background check first.

Berger's employment is conditional, pending completion of the background check.

Portions of Berger's work history were discussed during his job interview in Smithsburg, according to Bowers and Williams.

Both said they were impressed by Berger's references, which included former Frederick County Sheriff Carl R. Harbaugh and Frederick County State's Attorney Scott L. Rolle.

The town had been without a police chief for about five months after Vincent DuCellier accepted a United Nations training position in Kosovo.

Bowers said he has no regrets about nominating Berger and said if the allegations had merit he would have been charged criminally.

Administrative charges do not carry the weight of criminal charges but are important to employers, said former Sheriff Harbaugh.

He said prosecutors generally allow infractions to be handled administratively for law enforcement officers.

Because Berger's hearing was before an administrative panel and not a criminal court, its findings were not based on a reasonable doubt but rather on "a preponderance of the evidence."

The first three counts said that Berger placed a recording device in an informant's purse without the required permission of the state's attorney's office.

Criminal charges filed against a suspect as a result of the wiretap eventually were thrown out by Assistant State's Attorney Julie Stevenson, who said "the case did not meet the criteria for the use of a body wire."

Berger testified he knew it was a violation but that he considered it an emergency because the woman's safety was at risk.

The woman testified, however, that "she was not in fear of her life."

Counts four through seven alleged that Berger did not follow procedures when he removed a bicycle from the sheriff's office's property warehouse in 1993.

Berger told the sheriff that he believed the bicycle was one stolen from his son.

The sheriff gave Berger permission to take the bike, but testified that he was under the impression the theft had been recent.

It had, in fact, been five years earlier.

Berger was found out when he took the bike to be repaired and an employee realized the bike belonged to the store's owner.

He took the bike back to the sheriff's office and returned to the property storage area to get another bike for his son, court documents said. He was not allowed to take a second bike.

The remaining 23 counts involve his relationship with a female drug informant whom he arrested on drug charges in March 1993.

Court documents filed in connection with his appeal said Berger violated policy by having an intimate relationship with a person under criminal investigation.

He also was found guilty of influencing the assistant state's attorney to drop the charges against the woman under investigation.

He was also found guilty of leaving Frederick County while on duty to speak with an Army recruiter on the woman's behalf.

Despite the fact that he initiated the charges against him, Harbaugh called Berger a conscientious deputy who worked hard in Frederick County and would do so in Smithsburg.

"He's well-trained and intelligent and has a lot of energy," he said.

Rolle said he and Berger worked numerous narcotics cases and he found him to be hard working and committed. He said Berger paid for his mistakes and would be an asset to the Smithsburg community.

"The bottom line is that he's experienced and hardworking," he said.

Bowers and Williams said they believe Berger can put his transgressions behind him and do well as chief in the town.

"I will stand by him come hell or high water," said Bowers, who was Smithsburg's police chief from 1994 to 1997.

Councilman Cunningham said he wanted to reserve comment until the results of the background check were in.

Councilman Rohrer did not return phone messages and Councilmen Slick and Hornbecker were unavailable for comment.

Bowers said he told council members that new chief's work history would eventually become public knowledge.

"I told them (council members) I'm prepared to take the political heat, are you?" Bowers said.

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