Deputies Upset Over Officers's Punishment

Demotion, suspension add to troubles in sheriff's office

July 09, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

Turmoil continued to shake the Harford County Sheriff's Office last week as a captain suspected of making allegations of electioneering against the sheriff's second-in-command was demoted and a deputy who made public claims of morale problems within the agency was suspended, each for alleged work-related infractions.

The developments come on the heels of Sheriff R. Thomas Golding's recent announcement that state prosecutors decided not to bring criminal charges against his undersheriff, Col. Howard Walter.

On Friday, protesting what they say are repeated instances of bullying, about a dozen deputies stood outside the internal affairs office where suspension hearings were held for Fred Visnaw, president of the deputies union, and another deputy. The protesting deputies turned their backs to Walter when he entered the building.

The union issued a statement denouncing the agency's actions.

"Two members of the Harford County Deputy Sheriff's Union and a command staff member who has been sympathetic to the concerns of the union were recent victims of what appears to be politically motivated actions," said the statement, which added that the deputies were victims of a "head-hunting campaign."

A spokesman for the agency said he could not comment on pending personnel matters.

"People may reach their conclusions, unfortunately without all the facts and all the background," said spokesman Robert B. Thomas. "But there are pending matters to be resolved through the appropriate process, and we're not going to violate that process."

In May, Walter was accused in an anonymous letter of pressuring deputies to support Golding's fall election bid, as well as offering training trips to units that posted the most campaign signs. On July 1 the agency announced that the state prosecutor's office had decided against pursuing a criminal investigation after reviewing evidence.

Capt. Gregory Carlevaro, who agency leaders believed initiated the allegations, later became the subject of an internal investigation handed over to the Maryland State Police. That investigation has foundered, largely because Carlevaro was not responsible for the letter, according to deputies with knowledge of its origin. The deputies did not want to be named because they feared retribution. But his recent punishment is believed to be connected to use of overtime hours, according to sources.

Golding, a Republican who was appointed to the post, decided not to run for election shortly after the anonymous letter surfaced, citing "underhanded tactics by his opponents" and a desire to keep the sheriff's office free of politics.

"During the past several weeks, it has become increasingly obvious that the tenor of the campaign process will become `nasty' to say the least," Golding, 54, said in the statement at the time.

"I have no desire to see this office ripped apart by petty politics and a desire to achieve an end regardless of the means."

Carlevaro had widely been expected to join Maj. Jesse Bane on his Democratic ticket for sheriff. Bane said he was concerned that the demotion was politically motivated by Golding's belief that Bane tried to smear him.

"Captain Carlevaro is an excellent employee who has always gone by the policies and rules and has the heart of the agency in mind," said Bane, a 34-year veteran of the agency whose retirement became effective July 1. "A demotion is a pretty serious thing in law enforcement - you have to do something that's really egregious, and that would be totally out of character for him."

Bane also reiterated that the anonymous letter did not come from his camp. Bane was demoted and given a pay cut in 1990 after he supported a losing candidate for sheriff.

"I'm concerned that Sheriff Golding thinks I'm behind all this because I am not behind all this," he said. "I've done everything possible to make sure I did not go after any of the other candidates. ... If they feel as though there's something I've done, tell the public what I did."

In addition to Carlevaro's demotion, which includes a pay cut, Visnaw, the union president, was suspended Thursday. In an article in The Sun just days earlier, Visnaw was quoted as saying there were serious morale problems within the agency.

Bob Benedetto, a Republican candidate for sheriff, said the deputies are concerned about morale. He said he wants to make the department "fair and equal to everyone."

Visnaw, who works an overnight shift at the Southern Precinct, referred requests for comment to a union attorney.

"This is highly unusual how this is being handled," said Michael Marshall of the law firm Schlachman, Belsky & Weiner. He would not elaborate on why Visnaw was suspended.

Outside the internal affairs office, where deputies showed up to support Visnaw on Friday, former union President John J. Miner said he was transferred to a less desirable shift in 2004 after requesting documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

"This is a vicious group," he said of the leadership. "You watch - the people standing out here, you'll see them [agency leadership] come after us."

In an interview conducted the day Golding announced that Walter had been cleared, Golding said morale was not an issue in the agency and that those making claims had personal vendettas.

"If people here have problems with the way business is being conducted, bring it to attention through the proper channels so I can deal with it," he said.

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