Chief deputy is cleared

He was accused of pressuring for political support of Golding

Maryland Votes 2006

July 02, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

The Harford County Sheriff's Office said last week that its second-in-command, accused of intimidating deputies and offering rewards for support of Sheriff R. Thomas Golding's election campaign, has been cleared of wrongdoing and called the allegations "baseless and without merit."

Col. Howard Walter, Golding's chief deputy, was accused of approaching deputies and pressuring them to buy tickets to Golding's fundraisers, as well as offering trips to exotic locales for units that posted campaign signs around the county.

In May, Golding abruptly bowed out of the election, just days after an anonymous letter alleging the abuses surfaced. He sharply criticized what he called "underhanded tactics" used by his detractors to discredit him.

The anonymous letter charged that morale problems at the agency were out of control, with deputies uncomfortable walking down the halls at work. Golding said Friday that the agency's morale issues were no more serious than at any other organization. He attributed the allegations to personal vendettas.

The head of the deputies union said Golding had failed to recognize a very real problem in the agency.

"From the majority of people I talk to, and people I talk to every day, the biggest problem with the sheriff's office is morale," said Fred Visnaw, president of the deputy's union. "They don't understand just how massive a problem morale is."

After the complaints, the state prosecutor's office conducted a preliminary investigation and determined there was a lack of evidence or corroboration of the allegations, sheriff's department officials said Friday.

Golding praised the investigation, saying he had been confident Walter would be cleared.

"The allegation was that a quid pro quo of sorts was offered, and that's a serious allegation," Golding said Friday. "I never believed it for a second, but it needed to be looked into and was found to have no basis."

Walter has worked at the agency for 33 years, including two terms as chief deputy and a stint as warden of the county detention center. Rumors have swirled for weeks that Walter would leave the agency, which Golding dismissed.

"He's made it very clear to me that he's with me until the end," Golding said.

With Walter cleared, two sources said the agency has shifted its focus recently toward finding out who initiated the claims of intimidation.

The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Sun this month that the agency's top leadership believes a particular deputy was responsible for the claim and has turned an internal investigation over to the state police in an effort to avoid a conflict of interest. That investigation has stalled, the sources said. The sheriff's department and the state police would not comment on the investigation.

The state prosecutor's office has a policy of not discussing investigations unless charges are brought. Since learning of the prosecutor's decision a couple of weeks ago, the sheriff's office worked to get the approval of the state to announce the outcome.

Golding's predecessor, Joseph P. Meadows, stepped down amid a misconduct investigation by the state prosecutor's office in 2003.

Dave Tritt, a Republican candidate for sheriff who has spoken out about morale problems in the agency, issued a challenge to other candidates not to accept individual donations from deputies.

"Not taking donations is the first step towards depoliticizing the workplace," Tritt said.

Visnaw added that the deputies' union would support a candidate who ensures morale will change under their leadership. Union-supported candidates for sheriff in Harford County have traditionally won the election.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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