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Sheriff fires deputy over political hat

November 15, 2000

Sheriff fires deputy over political hat



By DAVE McMILLION and BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writers


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Outgoing Berkeley County Sheriff Ronald Jones has fired Cpl. Wilbur Johnson over Johnson's decision to wear a political hat at a golf charity event, Johnson's attorney said Wednesday.

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Jones fired Johnson even though the Berkeley County Deputy Sheriff's Civil Service Commission requested that Jones delay relieving Johnson of his duties.

In a Nov. 1 ruling, the Civil Service Commission ruled that Johnson could be fired for wearing the hat, but the commission asked Jones to delay any action against Johnson until the officer had a chance to appeal the decision.

The commission did not feel totally comfortable with its decision and wanted to give Johnson a chance to appeal the ruling so "another set of eyes" could look at the case, Martinsburg attorney Paul G. Taylor, who represents the Civil Service Commission, has said.

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Under state law, Johnson has 90 days to appeal the Civil Service Commission decision to Circuit Court, and Johnson has said he intends to appeal.

Barry Beck, Johnson's attorney, said Jones gave Johnson a letter Tuesday informing the 12-year veteran of the department that he had been fired. Beck said he had not seen the letter.

In addition to appealing the Civil Service Commission decision, Beck said he was studying whether Johnson might be able to go to Berkeley County Circuit Court to win his job back until the appeal process is completed.

"The timing of the termination is questionable," said Beck, pointing out that Jones did not fire Johnson until after the general election.

Despite repeated attempts over several days, Jones did not return calls for comment on the matter.

Johnson referred all questions about the matter to Beck.

Sheriff-elect Randy Smith, who defeated Jones for Berkeley County Sheriff in last week's general election, said he does not like what happened to Johnson but his hands may be tied by the process.

"What I can do about it, I don't know," he said.

Smith said he can't hire Johnson back without permission from the same Civil Service Commission that gave Jones the authority to fire him. Even if he could, Smith said, Johnson would have to be on the low end of the seniority ladder.

Capt. Kenneth LeMaster of the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office, who often speaks for the office, said Wednesday he could not comment.

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 contends state law prohibits deputies from engaging in political activity, and about the only such activity in which deputies can engage is voting.

Beck has defended Johnson's actions, saying nothing prohibits a deputy from expressing an opinion about a candidate.

During a Civil Service Commission hearing last month, Beck presented passages from a Berkeley County employees' handbook that indicated county workers were free to voice their opinion about politics.

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