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Sheriff alleges politics

September 22, 2000

Sheriff alleges politics



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Berkeley County Sheriff Ronald Jones has sent a letter to the Civil Service Commission claiming a deputy in the department violated a prohibition against engaging in political activity when he wore a hat inscribed with the name of Jones' opponent in the upcoming November election.

Cpl. Wilbur Johnson wore the cap while he was off duty playing golf at the Berkeley County Sheriff's Association charity tournament July 10 at the Stonebridge Golf Club in Martinsburg, said his attorney, Barry Beck.

Jones said he reported the incident to the Civil Service Commission after other deputies who were playing the tournament told him Johnson wore a hat inscribed "W. Randy Smith for Sheriff."

Jones said the deputies were concerned the incident may have given the appearance they were supporting Smith. Because the deputies reported the incident to him, Jones said he felt compelled to report it.

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Jones believes Johnson violated a state law barring deputies from engaging in political activity.

Jones said if he had failed to act it would have sent a message to deputies that they can "do whatever you want to do with politics, and that's not what the law says."

Beck disagreed, saying it's clear the law Jones is referring to does not prohibit a deputy from expressing an opinion about a candidate. He said the intent of the law is to bar deputies from engaging in activities such as working at the polls, serving as a member of a political committee or conducting a political rally.

"I wonder why the sheriff would pursue this, given that the law is clear. This is not a case where a guy is at the Martinsburg Mall handing out leaflets," Beck said.

Beck said Jones asked in his letter that the Civil Service Commission remove Johnson from his job, but Jones said he did not ask for Johnson's removal. Jones said he will leave that decision up to the commission, which will hold a hearing on Sept. 27 at 2 p.m.

Jones cannot fire any deputy without the approval of the Civil Service Commission, Beck said. If Johnson is found not to have violated the law, Jones could be ordered to pay Johnson's legal fees, he said.

In his formal response to Jones' letter, Johnson said he wore the hat to protect his head from sunburn.

A friend had given him the hat, and he had it in his private car, Johnson said. When he arrived at the tournament and realized he needed something to cover his head, he grabbed the only hat he had, he said.

Johnson, a 12-year veteran of the department, could not be reached for comment Friday.

There is no Maryland state law that would prohibit deputies from such activities while off duty, Washington County Attorney Richard Douglas said.

There are laws restricting government employees from engaging in political activities while working, he said. Specifically, the law says, "An employee of a local entity may not engage in political activity while on the job during working hours."

Washington County Sheriff Charles Mades said he could not fire a deputy for an incident such as the one described by Johnson's lawyer.

Staff writer Scott Butki contributed to this story.

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