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Union representative offers different account of clash at MCTC

Steve Berger said he was asked to go outside to participate in a physical altercation

April 08, 2011|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com
  • A union representative contends that correctional officers challenged him to a fight at Maryland Correctional Training Center last month, not the other way around, as officers have claimed. Steve Berger, a representative of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Maryland, wrote that when he asked correctional officers to sign "paper work that was going to be given to legislative leaders in Annapolis," none did.
Herald-Mail file photo

A union representative contends that correctional officers challenged him to a fight at a local state prison last month, not the other way around, as officers have claimed.

Steve Berger, a representative of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Maryland, wrote that when he asked correctional officers to sign "paper work that was going to be given to legislative leaders in Annapolis," none did.

Instead, officers asked him about a controversial new fee the union is charging for its collective bargaining services, even from non-members.

"When the questions turned political, and I was asked to go outside to participate in a physical altercation, I felt obligated to verbally defend myself and AFSCME," Berger wrote in a March 22 letter to Gary D. Maynard, the secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Through the Maryland Public Information Act, The Herald-Mail requested a copy of the letter from the department on March 31 and received it Thursday.

Berger's account differs sharply from the recollections of several correctional officers who were at the Maryland Correctional Training Center on March 11, when Berger was there to talk to officers.

Some told The Herald-Mail last month that officers were civil as they questioned Berger about the "fair share" fee, as it is known, but Berger blew up as the debate escalated, and he launched an expletive-laden tirade, then left.

They said 72 correctional officers and staff members signed a petition asking that Berger be banned from the prison and that he apologize.

Asked Friday about Berger's account of the squabble in his letter, Shank — who has clashed with AFSCME over the fair share fee — said he has about a dozen incident reports from correctional officers accusing Berger of being the instigator and acting in "an unprofessional, threatening and belligerent manner."

Shank has asked Maynard and Commissioner of Correction J. Michael Stouffer to investigate. So far, he said, he has heard only that the matter was referred to Secretary of State John P. McDonough, the administration's liaison with organized labor.

It was unclear Friday whether Berger wrote the letter on his own accord, at the direction of AFSCME or the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, or as a response to the petition.

Department spokesman Rick Binetti didn't return two phone messages seeking clarification on Friday, but wrote in an e-mail on Thursday: "It is my understanding that neither the secretary nor the commissioner made this request."

Berger didn't return a message left on his cell phone.

Maureen O'Connor, who handles public relations and media requests for AFSCME Maryland, said she couldn't reach Director Patrick Moran for comment on Friday.

Shank said the department should ban Berger from the prisons, to protect state employees "who felt threatened and bullied."

Berger, in his letter, wrote that he went to MCTC at 3 p.m. on March 11 to address the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift "about possible changes and losses to their retirement and health benefits."

He wrote that he had permission from supervisors to talk to about 70 correctional officers in the roll-call room.

None of the officers signed the papers Berger was carrying, but they asked him about the fair share" fee.

"I answered those questions to the best of my knowledge and those answers seemed to agitate the officers that were inquiring," Berger wrote. "From that point on I felt under attack from the officers both personally and professionally."

Berger, a former MCTC lieutenant, wrote that he had "mutually respectful" discussions at Roxbury Correctional Institution on March 9, Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown on March 10 and MCTC, before the confrontation, on March 11. RCI, MCI-H and MCTC are all south of Hagerstown.

But, referring to the later squabble at MCTC, he wrote: "During my 28 years in Corrections, I have never been so disrespected by a group of correctional officers and will never put myself in that position again. I regret trying to answer a hostile crowd and I will instead leave before a meeting gets that argumentative. It should be noted that what happened was neither intentional nor expected and will never happen in the future."

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