Hagerstown man, in $2 million suit, says his ministry work led to firing

February 15, 1991|By Thom Loverro | Thom Loverro,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

HAGERSTOWN -- Richard D. Wiles spends much of his time these days working on his dream -- a ministry to help find missing children.

But he's had more time to work on it than he cared to since he was fired from his job as marketing director for the American Jail Association in Hagerstown. His vocation, he said, was the primary reason he lost his job.

In a $2 million lawsuit filed in Washington County Circuit Court, Mr. Wiles charges that the executive director of the association, former county Sheriff Francis R. "Dick" Ford, fired him because of his off-work religious activities.

The suit also charges that Mr. Ford, in an unsuccessful bid for county commissioner last November, illegally used the association offices, equipment and employees during his campaign.

Mr. Ford has denied the allegations, saying he acted within the association's rules for firing employees. "It had nothing to do with religion," he said.

He added that the charges of using the office for campaign purposes "are totally erroneous. I don't even know where some of his ideas came from."

But those charges have resulted in a review by the U.S. Department of Justice of association records concerning several federal grants given to the association for drug treatment surveys of penal institutions and other studies.

All this stems, Mr. Wiles said, from his simple and sincere off-work efforts to establish a ministry to help find missing children.

An ordained minister with the non-denominational Ministerial Fellowship of the USA, Mr. Wiles had been organizing Prayers for the Children Inc., a non-profit effort to create prayer groups and produce fliers about missing- and abused-child cases nationwide. Mr. Wiles is the only staff for the ministry and does not receive a salary, he said.

"I kept my religious activities totally separate from the jail association," he said.

His trouble began about a year after he began working at the association, a non-profit organization based in Hagerstown that works to advance professional training in jails and to improve jail standards and conditions. The association includes representatives from state and local corrections departments from California, Florida, Texas, Georgia and Maryland on its board of directors.

In February 1990, a weekly Hagerstown newspaper published a feature story about Mr. Wiles' missing-children work.

"After that story appeared, Mr. Ford called me into his office and told me I was fired," said Mr. Wiles, 37. "I asked him what I did wrong, and he held up the newspaper article."

"I asked him to explain," Mr. Wiles added, "and he said that he hired company men, not preachers. He said I was using my paycheck to finance the ministry and that he resented it and was going to put a stop to it."

Mr. Wiles was not immediately let go, but he said the tension that remained came to a head in August of last year, while he was at a correctional industry convention in San Diego.

Mr. Wiles said he mentioned to another person that he was upset that Mr. Ford was trying to restrict his off-work activities while at the same time "using a tax-exempt organization to promote his political campaign" for Washington County commissioner.

Later that day, Mr. Wiles said, he received a phone call from the Hagerstown office telling him to return immediately. Several days later, Mr. Ford told him he was fired, Mr. Wiles said.

At that time, Mr. Ford was gearing up for the September primary, and Mr. Wiles said the association office sometimes took on the air of a campaign headquarters.

"Campaign workers were in and out daily. Literature was designed by the desktop publishing computer by an association employee on company time," among other activities, he said.

Under state law, such activities would have to be reported as in-kind contributions and would also violate the association's tax-exempt status.

Politics had created some tense moments in the office because another employee, William S. Nave, was running as a Republican for county commissioner.

"Mr. Ford told me either to resign or not run for political office," said Mr. Nave, who quit after only four months at the association and is now a real estate salesman.

Both Mr. Nave and Mr. Ford were successful in the primary, but both fell short in the general election in November for one of the five commissioner seats. Mr. Ford finished sixth and Mr. Nave seventh.

During his time at the association, Mr. Nave said, he did not see any political activity "except for his brochures around the office."

Mr. Ford reacted strongly to Mr. Nave's allegations. "I can't say any more about this," he said. "You'll have to talk to my lawyer."

The association's lawyer, Stephen M. Silvestri, said he had no comment beyond denying the allegations and vowing to "file the appropriate response."

Velva Walter, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, would say only that the association's accounts were being reviewed and that the findings will not be released soon.

Since his dismissal, Mr. Wiles has divided his time between fighting against what he says was his unjust firing and establishing his ministry for missing children.

"I'm trying to turn a very negative experience into a positive opportunity," he said.

He is getting legal help from the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia non-profit foundation that handles religious freedom cases.

"I think all of the evidence shows that Mr. Wiles was discriminated against on the basis of his religious activities," said Larry L. Crain of the institute.

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