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Handbook used as defense for W.Va. deputy's campaign cap

September 27, 2000

Handbook used as defense for W.Va. deputy's campaign cap



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - An attorney representing a Berkeley County Sheriff's deputy who is at risk of losing his job over a political hat he wore presented passages from a Berkeley County employee handbook Wednesday that indicated county workers are free to voice their opinion about politics.

The handbook said an employee's retention will never be based on the worker's political opinions, said Barry Beck, the attorney representing Cpl. Wilbur Johnson.

Beck discussed the employee handbook during a Civil Service Commission hearing Wednesday at which Sheriff Ronald Jones was seeking permission to terminate Johnson's employment.

Beck also reviewed rules for professional conduct for county employees and said the policies say nothing about a county employee being prohibited from giving political opinions.

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Jones testified that Civil Service Commission rules controlling political activity among deputies are the laws that officers are supposed to follow.

If deputies notice discrepancies between the Civil Service Commission laws and other county employee rules, they should talk to him about what is allowed, Jones said.

"What the code says is what the code says," said Jones. Jones contends that about the only political activity in which deputies are allowed to participate is voting.

Jones' attorney described Johnson as somebody who often "attempted to push the envelope" when it involved what kind of political activities deputies are allowed to participate in.

During the 1992 primary election in the county, Johnson came to work in a car carrying political signs for Shug Kisner, a sheriff's candidate, said attorney Charles F. Printz Jr.

As a result, Preston Gooden, the sheriff at the time, called a meeting and warned deputies about participating in elections.

Printz said Johnson "should have been on notice" about political activities.

Jones said last week that Johnson violated a prohibition against engaging in political activity when he wore a hat at a golf tournament last July that was inscribed with the name of Jones opponent in the upcoming November election.

There are laws barring deputies from engaging in activities such as working at election polls, serving on political committees or conducting political rallies.

Beck has defended Johnson's actions, saying there is nothing that prohibits a deputy from expressing his opinion about a candidate.

Johnson wore a baseball cap inscribed "W. Randy Smith for Sheriff" 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.

Jones said he reported the incident to the Civil Service Commission because other deputies at the event were concerned the incident may have given the appearance they were supporting Smith.

Curtis Keller, former captain of the Sheriff's Department, testified in a hearing Wednesday that he first noticed Johnson wearing the hat while Johnson was sitting near the head of a table during a banquet later that evening at Stonebridge.

The banquet was part of the charity event.

"Was the sun in his eye at any time during this banquet?" Printz asked.

"Not to my recollection," Keller responded.

Johnson said he wore the hat to protect his head from sunburn during the tournament.

Keller said he talked to Johnson's supervisor, who was at the banquet, about the hat. Johnson's supervisor told Keller he had already warned Johnson about wearing it, Keller testified.

Under questioning by Beck, Jones said he was informed about Preston Gooden political signs that were observed in the yard of a deputy's home during the primary election last May. Smith defeated Gooden in the primary.

Jones said he consulted with Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely about what to do about the signs in Deputy Robert Buracker's yard. Jones said Games-Neely told him she did not think any action could be taken because it would be hard to prove who owned the property, Buracker or his wife.

Jones is asking the Civil Service Commission for permission to terminate Johnson's employment. If Johnson is found not to have violated the law, Jones could be ordered to pay Johnson's legal fees, Beck said.

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