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Charles County Sheriff Rex Coffey has been sued on allegations that he interfered with internal investigations of officers who supported his 2006 and 2010 campaigns while issuing demotions to those who backed his opponents.
Lt. Troy Berry, an operational patrol commander who has been with the sheriff’s office since 2005, filed the lawsuit March 29. It claims that his demotion in November 2010 came because he did not support Coffey in the run-up to that year’s election.
In the complaint, Berry alleges that Coffey has infringed on his free speech rights, wrongfully demoted him and publicly tarnished his reputation. Berry is seeking damages “of no less than” $1 million to cover lost wages, damage to his reputation and diminished opportunities both within and outside the agency. No court date has been set.
Acting on advice from his attorney, Berry declined to comment on the lawsuit.
“You know me, I would like to publicly address this lawsuit. But I can’t comment on any matter that’s currently in litigation,” Coffey (D) said through a spokeswoman. “I would just say there are two sides to every story and the facts pertaining to these allegations will be brought out in court.”
The complaint cites an advertisement Coffey ran in the Maryland Independent days before the 2006 election decrying ads run by former sheriff Fred Davis that listed officers who endorsed him, including Berry.
After winning the election, Coffey promoted Berry to commander of the agency’s internal affairs unit, the Office of Professional Responsibility.
In this position, Berry, then a captain, “identified and investigating misconduct in the Sheriff’s Office,” the complaint states. “Captain Berry would soon learn, however, that when his work led him to investigate Coffey supporters, he would be overtly stymied by the Sheriff seeking to protect his own.”
Berry states in the complaint that he investigated suspected misconduct by several sworn officers, including “deputies and a civilian employee who were also active political supporters of Sheriff Coffey.”
Berry alleges that due to these investigations, Coffey “retaliated” by demoting Berry to commander of District III, which covers eastern Waldorf, and cutting his pay following the 2010 election.
In the complaint, Berry alleges that Coffey obstructed investigations and covered for political allies or allowed them to escape discipline.
During Coffey’s first term, Berry launched an investigation into William Winters, a civilian employee accused of sexually harassing four female colleagues, the complaint states.
Coffey prevented Berry’s office from interviewing Winters, who supported Coffey’s campaign for sheriff. Coffey later allowed Winters to resign in lieu of a full investigation and any subsequent disciplinary action, only to later rehire Winters in 2011, the complaint states.
Berry also alleges that another of Coffey’s supporters, Capt. Michael Rackey, was never disciplined for compromising an investigation into one of his subordinates, Jeffrey Henderson, a civilian employee suspected of falsifying timesheets and coming to work drunk. The complaint states that Rackey informed Henderson of Berry’s investigation prior to Henderson’s questioning by internal affairs.
The complaint states that another Coffey supporter, patrol officer Joseph Hudson, escaped potential prosecution for allegedly stealing a drink from a convenience store.
A sheriff’s deputy learned of the theft and informed Berry’s office, according to the complaint. Despite pressure from Coffey to end the investigation, Berry states in the complaint that he “discovered that [Hudson] had falsified police reports in several DUI cases.”
Instead of referring the case to prosecutors or for internal discipline, Coffey allowed Hudson to resign, the complaint states.
Berry alleges Coffey interfered again in the investigation of correctional officer Cpl. Matthew Irby, who punched an inmate whose hands were handcuffed behind his back April 30, 2009. The incident sparked controversy and drew harsh criticism from the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People when Irby was not disciplined.
Berry’s office recommended punishment for Irby, and an internal review board agreed. Irby was spared, Berry claims, due to his political support for Coffey.
“Upon hearing the decision, Captain Berry went to Sheriff Coffey’s deputy, [then-Maj. Joe Montminy Jr.], to voice his disbelief,” the complaint reads. “Major Montminy responded by stating, ‘He just had a bad day.’”
Berry also alleges that Maj. Joseph “Buddy” Gibson asked Berry during the summer of 2010 for any internal affairs records on Coffey’s opponent in the 2010 election, retired sheriff’s office captain Dave Williams, and Brian Eley, a retired Charles County officer and current commander with the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office, who supported Williams’ candidacy.
Berry’s complaint describes the request as “highly suspicious given the political race.”
After meeting with internal counsel, Berry initially refused to hand the records over. Coffey accused Berry of denying the request due to Berry’s supposed support for Williams’ campaign for sheriff, so Berry agreed to produce the records if he was ordered to do so in writing, but the sheriff declined the offer, the complaint states.
“Sheriff Coffey’s efforts to intimate [sic] or coerce Captain Berry into blurring, or even crossing, the ethical and professional lines of his job were once again foiled,” the complaint states.
Berry also alleges that he was summoned to Coffey’s office two weeks after the 2010 election and informed that he was being demoted from captain to lieutenant and having his pay decreased, not due to his job performance, but specifically because Berry supported Davis in 2006 and voted for Williams in 2010.
After Berry left Coffey’s office, he was told by then-Capt. David Saunders that he had been demoted in identical fashion earlier that day, the complaint states.
The sheriff’s office later announced that the demotions took effect Nov. 20.
Berry did not comment on the demotion at the time, and neither did Saunders, other than “to say his demotion wasn’t disciplinary,” according to an article published Nov. 23, 2010, in the Maryland Independent.
Berry also quotes in the complaint a Nov. 26, 2010, memo emailed by Coffey to the department’s sworn officers stating the demotions “were not made because of job performance.”
Despite agency requirements that each employee receive an annual performance evaluation, Berry did not receive an evaluation for 2010 until Jan. 17, 2012, according to the complaint.
Despite Coffey’s assurances that Berry’s demotion was not performance-related, Berry received an “Unsatisfactory” designation on his employee evaluation, which indicated that his demotion came because Coffey did not trust Berry and resented that Berry would share information with then-Charles County State’s Attorney Leonard C. Collins Jr. (D), the complaint states.
Berry states in the complaint that he was legally required to share certain information with Collins while heading up the internal affairs unit.
Berry threatened legal action the day after the performance evaluation was issued, and hours later, Montminy presented Berry a revised evaluation that graded his job performance as “Satisfactory,” according to the complaint. Berry claims he asked for but did not receive an explanation.
The complaint also states that despite a positive performance evaluation in March 2012, he was reassigned that October from District III commander to operational patrol commander for no apparent reason.
Berry stated that he was told a week later during a meeting between assistant sheriff of operations Maj. Robert Cleaveland and the nine other officers that his reassignment was due to poor job performance, contradicting the March evaluation. Berry alleged that Cleaveland yelled “Do your [expletive] job” at him and “attempted to humiliate him” during the meeting.
Berry received a positive performance evaluation a month later, the complaint states.
Charles County Fraternal Order of Police President Sgt. John Elliott said the FOP is aware of the case and has reviewed Berry’s complaint, but that it is “going to stay neutral” during the legal proceedings.
“We have involved members on both sides, so until everything plays out, we’re going to kind of abstain,” Elliott said.