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Sheriff James Murphy fires deputy Vernon Betts for running for sheriff

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Posted: Thursday, July 28, 2011 12:15 am

On July 12, Sheriff James Murphy, who was found guilty of racial discrimination last September, fired an African-American deputy sheriff when he saw a business card that identified the deputy as a candidate for sheriff in the city of St. Louis.

In a July 6 letter to terminate Deputy Sheriff Vernon Betts, Murphy wrote that Betts violated a procedural order. That order states, "Deputies shall not file for, campaign for or hold any elected public office while an employee of the Sheriff of the City of St. Louis."

However, Murphy's order puts a barrier on the path that most people take to become sheriffs in Missouri, experts say.

John Worden, the director of the Law Enforcement Training Institute at University of Missouri-Columbia, said aspiring sheriffs typically become deputies and then run for the elected office of sheriff.

As long as the deputies don't campaign on the clock, they can run for office while still working as deputies, Worden said.

Michael Covington, executive director of the Missouri's Sheriff's Association, said there is no state statute that prohibits deputy sheriffs from running for sheriff. Covington was also not aware of any such ordinances that prohibit a deputy sheriff running for sheriff.

Betts said he believes that Murphy abused his power as sheriff by writing the order to squash competition in the 2012 election.

Betts said he told Murphy in June 2010 that he planned to run for the seat. From Betts' perspective, Murphy developed the order because Betts' popularity was growing. As a minister at the Shalom Church City of Peace, former St. Louis Public School teacher, retired AmerenUE employee and well-known citizen in the African-American community, he believes he has a fighting chance at winning the election.

Mike Guzy, the sheriff's executive assistant, said that Murphy developed the order because he did not want deputies to engage in political activities.

"We ran it by the judges before we put it into effect," Guzy said. "It's a good order. We don't want our deputies out campaigning. They are supposed to be uninvolved."

Guzy would not say which judges the sheriff consulted.

"He formulated the order on his own," Guzy said.

Matt Murphy, public information officer at the 22nd Judicial Circuit Court, said the presiding judge Steve Ohmer could not comment on his legal opinion of the order.

"The Circuit Court judges have no say over personnel policies in the Sheriff's Office," Murphy said.

Guzy said the sheriff has the right to write such an order under the state statute that creates the Office of the Sheriff.

Covington said in his personal opinion, any kind of ordinance that would keep deputy sheriffs from campaigning for sheriff would be in violation of citizens' rights.

"I doubt it would stand the test of the courts," Covington said.

However, as far as a procedural order, Covington said that the sheriff has the ability to hire and fire at will, under Chapter 57.275 of the Missouri Revised Statutes.

‘My constitutional right'

But does the sheriff's right to fire employees trump the employees' rights to the electoral process? Betts says no.

"I have the right to run for sheriff," Betts said. "It's my constitutional right."

Betts said he started talking with the Missouri Ethics Commission about three weeks ago, and they suggested that he start with an exploratory campaign. He said he printed business cards and spent one weekend walking neighborhoods in the Central West End and South City.

"In the course of all that, I gave the card to someone who knew the sheriff," Betts said.

However, Michael O'Reilly, the sheriff's attorney, disagreed with Betts' assessment of his rights.

"Running for office is a not a protected right that trumps the administrator of the police department," O'Reilly said.

O'Reilly said deputies are employees at will, according to state law, which means that they have some procedural rights but largely the sheriff can fire anyone for any reason. However, the sheriff cannot fire someone based on his or her race or religion.

O'Reilly said Murphy wrote the order after Judge David Dowd issued a similar order regarding courthouse employees and political activities, which was even broader than the sheriff's order.

Since Murphy was elected in 1988, he has faced criticism regarding discrimination.

In September 2010, two of his African-American deputies successful sued Murphy for supporting a racially hostile work environment when he refused to discipline three other employees who hung a noose from some pipes in the St. Louis Civil Courts building in 2006, near where prisoners were held.

The lawsuit also found that Murphy passed over black employees for promotions and gave those promotions to white employees. Plaintiffs William "Pat" Hill and Jacques Hughes also successfully argued that they were retaliated against for complaining about the racial problems.

Office organization is also not Murphy's strong suit, according to reports of public audits.

Last year, among many other administrative lapses, state Auditor Susan Montee discovered that the department had no record-keeping system in place for monitoring Murphy's sick leave accruals. The audit showed that Murphy has 191 accumulated days of sick leave, some of which could be cashed out when he retires for an immediate payment of over $11,000.

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1 comment:

  • Nospin posted at 12:57 am on Fri, Jul 29, 2011.

    Nospin Posts: 1

    Vernon is quite a guy and has my respect as a person, though I doubt if agree much politically. I do think that he'd make a heck of a Sheriff as well.

    Despite what some might think or want to think, most of your readers and probably all of your staff....this is not a racial issue, regardless of the current sheriff's past. It is a political one. Quite simply, and it is simple, Vernon is a legitimate political threat and the Sheriff knows it.

    I would think that the courts would quickly put the Sheriff in his proper place regarding his rule regarding political activity. Also, it is important in that this goes beyond race (again, this is NOT a race issue) and affects all potential political candidiates. If the Sheriff can get away with this, why not every political office holder?

    The Sheriff, in my opinion, acted illegally, but also stupidly. He's created a problem for himself.

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