Christopher’s right, someone is undermining sheriff’s office
Last week, the politically charged hearing for Deputy Sheriff Ismael Torres Jr. continued. Torres was fired May 22 by Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson for, among other things, falsifying his daily log so he could qualify for overtime pay.
Torres requested a public hearing before the county’s personnel board to protest his termination. The board upheld the firing 3-0.
The June 11 testimony left me wondering why Deputy Sheriff Torres would request a public hearing.
Time and again, county attorney Barry Willoughby had demonstrated how Torres’ daily log conflicted with his car’s GPS report.
Here’s a typical example: Torres’s log for April 3 showed his day delivering court papers beginning at 8 a.m. The car’s GPS said it didn’t leave the driveway until 11:18 a.m.
How do you argue against the cold, hard facts of a GPS report?
Even his direct superior, Chief Deputy Dennis Lineweaver, had agreed the GPS was “largely accurate.”
On the hearing’s second day [June 20], Torres himself testified, pitting his personal credibility against the accuracy of the GPS.
His attorney, Julieanne Murray, led him through day after day of differences between his daily log and the GPS. Each time, he insisted his log was correct.
She asked him if he had falsified his time sheets.
“Absolutely not,” he said.
“Why did you ask for a public hearing?” Murray asked.
“I have nothing to hide,” Torres responded. “My mom always told me, if you didn’t do anything wrong, you stick to your guns and you fight for what you believe in.”
This was the high point for Torres. He made a good witness, his demeanor pleasant and earnest.
Multiple sources dispute log
But his credibility took a crippling, if not fatal, hit during the Willoughby’s cross-examination.
The questioning concerned a March 2 car accident. Torres reported in his log that he had stopped to help a trapped motorist at 4:40 p.m.
Willoughby produced a Delaware State Police report of the accident, showing it took place at 6:03 p.m. The 6:03 time was further corroborated by a call Torres himself made to report the accident and by his car’s GPS.
Torres first tried to maintain that 4:40 was an “approximate” time.
Willoughby pounced. “So 4:40 is approximately 6:04 to you, correct?”
After some brief verbal sparring, Torres admitted the GPS had the correct time and location of the accident.
Willoughby also introduced evidence that the deputy sheriff’s wages had been garnished $575 a month by bankruptcy court, an amount close to the approximately $600 a month Torres had received in overtime pay.
(Since August, Torres had received a total of $6,000 in overtime pay, four times more than anyone else in the department.)
The audience – composed mostly of Torres supporters – groaned in protest that the county attorney had brought up Torres’ finances.
But what did they expect? It was Torres’ decision to make the hearing public. If the county is forced into the position of defending itself publicly, it’s going make its best case.
And it’s hard to argue the information about the garnishment wasn’t pertinent. One of Murray’s main closing arguments in defense of Torres was to ask why he would submit false reports if he knew there was a GPS on his car. The garnishment speaks to motive.
Sheriff: firing part of “witch hunt”
With the GPS data corroborated and the credibility of Torres’ log shredded, attorney Murray still had one more card to play.
If she could demonstrate that Torres had been fired for political reasons or that Sheriff Christopher had not been consulted before his deputy was fired, the personnel board could restore her client to his former position.
Sheriff Jeff Christopher was happy to help. Calmly and deliberately, he testified that Torres kept up with his work and was “first in line to raise his hand” to volunteer.
He became more animated as he described what he considered a “witch hunt” by the county to undermine his office.
Speaking to the political issue, Christopher said, “It’s no secret, there’s a conflict between myself and the county. They have their scenario about what the sheriff’s office should be and I have my scenario.”
“In fact,” he said, “we are not a department of the county. We are a sheriff’s office, of the people.”
The problem with this argument was that the county paid for Torres’ salary, car, equipment and gas. That makes him a county employee.
As county administrator, Lawson had no choice but to pursue the issue of misappropriated overtime pay, whether or not politics are involved. This is taxpayer money.
Christopher also contended he wasn’t properly consulted, but the personnel board didn’t buy that argument, noting a meeting that was held more than two weeks before the termination.
Board member Clay Yocum, explaining his vote to affirm the county’s decision, got to the nub of the issue.
“When he was notified of the meeting on May 3,” Yocum said, “as a law officer, that should have been a trigger going off saying, ‘There’s something wrong. I need to check into it.’”
Christopher testified about being “usurped,” but it was his decision to blow off the county administrator’s inquiry by saying Torres’s GPS must be wrong.
It was his decision to back Torres despite the mountain of evidence against him.
This puts Christopher in the position of appearing, at best, unconcerned about how taxpayer dollars are spent.
Which means Sheriff Christopher is right about one thing. Someone is undermining the office of sheriff. The person is … Sheriff Christopher