Candidates disagree on sheriff's job

October 20, 1994|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,Sun Staff Writer

When Richmond Laney and Michael A. Chiuchiolo ran against each other for Howard County sheriff in 1990, their campaigns focused on revelations that some top deputies had jokingly practiced Nazi salutes.

Their electoral contest this year is following suit, as Mr. Laney -- the loser in 1990 -- is attacking Mr. Chiuchiolo for not doing enough to clean up the department.

In the process, however, the Republican underdog has infuriated members of the department and even his own political party -- prompting several area Republicans to publicly endorse Mr. Chiuchiolo, the Democratic incumbent.

Mr. Laney's attacks also have served to obscure other significant differences between the two candidates and their visions of what constitutes the ideal sheriff.

Both candidates agree the sheriff's office has three main responsibilities: to serve legal documents, provide courthouse security and transport prisoners. But there's little other common ground between the two men.

Specifically, Mr. Laney, a 37-year-old Army reserve captain and member of the state Property Tax Assessment Appeals Board, argues the $36,000 position of sheriff is more that of an administrator than a law enforcement officer.

Pointing to his military experience as evidence of his organizational skills, the Ellicott City resident says he's ideally suited to oversee the department's approximately 45 employees and $2 million annual operating budget.

"People have to understand that the sheriff is not a law enforcement position; it is an administrative position," Mr. Laney said. "There is no lack of law enforcement experience in the department with the deputies, and what the office really needs is someone with administrative and management experience to take control."

But Mr. Chiuchiolo, 53, vehemently disagrees with Mr. Laney's concept of the role of the sheriff, describing it as "out in left field."

Mr. Chiuchiolo -- who ousted the incumbent sheriff in the 1990 Democratic primary by promising to improve the department's tainted image -- stresses that his 25 years with the Howard County Police Department were essential to the job he's done the last four years.

"It is like saying that the chief of police does not need any police training to run a good department, or the fire chief not needing any fire training, or even a college dean not needing a college education to manage a college," the Clarksville resident said.

The incumbent points with particular pride to the $128,000 state grant secured by his office to develop and manage the county's new alternative sentencing program.

Mr. Laney also attacks Mr. Chiuchiolo for the periodic backlogs of legal documents waiting to be served. While he did not have specific numbers, Mr. Laney said he's heard many community complaints about the length of time it takes for deputies to serve documents.

Mr. Chiuchiolo acknowledged legal notices do sometimes accumulate, but only because the deputies' first responsibility is to provide security to the court. "The demands of the court are most important. We need to provide armed security in every courtroom and transport prisoners all over the state, and that takes top priority," he said.

The harshest -- and most controversial -- attack by Mr. Laney involves how Mr. Chiuchiolo handled the Nazi mimicry controversy that wracked department morale in 1990.

After an extensive State Police investigation into allegations that some deputies were doing Nazi salutes and shouting German words, the sheriff at the time, Herbert Stonesifer, filed charges against his two top deputies, twins Maj. Donald Pruitt and Sgt. Dennis Pruitt Jr. A trial board eventually recommended that the two be demoted one rank, fined $200 and given sensitivity training.

When Mr. Chiuchiolo entered office, however, he decided that the trial board's punishment was not severe enough to quell the community outcry, and instead fired the Pruitts -- a decision they challenged all the way to the U.S. Surpreme Court and lost. Mr. Chiuchiolo also required everyone in the department to undergo extensive sensitivity training.

Mr. Laney charges Mr. Chiuchiolo should have done a more thorough investigation of the department and considered filing charges against more deputies, including one deputy who was subsequently named the 1993 National Deputy of the Year.

"It has all been covered up. It is absolutely scandalous," he said.

But Mr. Laney's precise position is not exactly clear. In an interview Tuesday, he said Mr. Chiuchiolo was wrong to have ignored the trial board and fired the Pruitts.

"If it had been me, I would have [upheld] the trial board's recommendation. That's what they're there for," Mr. Laney said.

But yesterday, he contradicted himself, releasing a statement say ing: "I want it clearly understood that I have always said -- 'I would never rehire the Pruitt twins.' "

Angered by the attacks, Mr. Chiuchiolo said he stands by his deputies, particularly the sergeant he nominated for deputy of -- the year for saving a state trooper's life.

He also said Mr. Laney's statements indicate "he obviously wasn't attuned to the community and the uproar communitywide."

The Pruitts were the main problem, Mr. Chiuchiolo said, and once they were fired, it was essential that the office move forward rather than focusing on the past.

"I know we're doing a good job, and I have done the job the voters elected me to do, which was to straighten out the office and restore a sense of professionalism," Mr. Chiuchiolo said.

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