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Bartlett endorses Smithsburg police chief

April 05, 2000|By KIMBERLY YAKOWSKI

SMITHSBURG - U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett has sent a letter to Smithsburg's Mayor and Town Council endorsing Smithsburg Police Chief Ralf Berger, who was fired from the Frederick County Sheriff's Office on administrative charges five years ago.

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Bartlett, R-Md., said in the letter that Berger was the "victim of a political process."

"His administrative problems were the result of a difficult election cycle that needed a scapegoat," he said in the letter.

Berger, a 15-year veteran of the Frederick County Sheriff's Office, was hired as Smithsburg's police chief on March 7.

Frederick County Sheriff James Hagy dismissed Berger in April 1995 following a four-day administrative hearing at which Berger was found guilty of 23 of 32 administrative charges.

A panel found Berger, who was a sergeant, guilty of administrative charges including allowing a defendant to escape punishment by influencing the prosecutor, misappropriation of property, wiretap violations and falsification of time sheets.

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He lost an appeal to Frederick County Circuit Court in January 1997.

All charges were administrative. No criminal charges were filed against Berger.

Berger, contacted by telephone Wednesday night, would not comment.

In the letter, Bartlett said Berger was a "dedicated and diligent police officer" in Frederick County.

Bartlett wrote that when Berger investigated a sexual harassment incident involving one of Bartlett's staff members, he "acted with the utmost professional standards."

Bartlett would not take a call about Berger and an aide said the congressman would not elaborate on the contents of the letter.

Smithsburg Mayor Tommy Bowers said he initially discounted Berger's resume because of his history with the Frederick County Sheriff's Office, but after reading favorable references from former Frederick County Sheriff Carl Harbaugh and Frederick County State's Attorney Scott Rolle, he changed his mind.

"I was swayed to take a closer look," he said.

Berger was hired conditionally pending the results of a background check, which is expected to be completed by the end of the month, Bowers said.

Bowers said that he doesn't regret hiring Berger before the background check was completed.

Councilmen David Williams, Charlie Slick, Michael Rohrer and James Cunningham voted in favor of hiring Berger. Councilman Thomas Hornbecker voted in opposition, saying he did so because the background check wasn't complete.

Williams and Slick said they were standing by Berger. Cunningham said he was reserving comment until the background check is complete. Rohrer did not respond to a messge left on his answering machine Wednesday evening.

Williams said town residents he has talked to were "taking a wait-and-see attitude."

Bowers said he felt pressured to find a police chief because the town had been without one for more than five months after the former chief, Vincent DuCellier, left to take a training job with the United Nations in Kosovo.

Berger won the job over several outstanding police chief candidates, said Bowers, who interviewed Berger three times for the job.

Berger was the most motivated, had the best arrest record and had confiscated the most drugs and money, Bowers said.

Should the results of the background check be unacceptable, he wouldn't hesitate to discharge Berger, Bowers said.

"If I made a mistake I'll admit it," he said.

Bowers said he hasn't personally received any feedback from residents about hiring Berger, but his wife has heard some negative comments.

Former Smithsburg Mayor Mildred "Mickey" Myers said she has spoken to many people who are concerned.

She said that when she was growing up police officers "were thought of as heroes - and I'd like it to stay that way."

Town residents are tired of Smithsburg being at the center of controversy, she said.

While she was mayor, Myers fired Bowers, who was the town's police chief from 1994 to 1997. Bowers defeated Myers in the 1998 mayoral race.

"The town doesn't need any more police problems," she said.

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