Florida sheriff denies accusations of political firing, demotion of deputies

FORT MYERS — The dismissal last week of a Lee County deputy has a police union crying foul, accusing Sheriff Mike Scott of punishing the man for supporting one of the sheriff’s election opponents.

Scott, however, is defending the decision to fire Deputy Dana Berry, a school resource officer in Cape Coral, in the wake of two complaints this month.

Documents obtained by the Daily News show two complaints lodged against Berry, the first as the result of a traffic stop April 5 when he held a woman in his patrol car for 30 minutes. The second came less than a week later, April 11, when a parent at the middle school where Berry was assigned reported a verbal altercation with the deputy.

Tim Fisher, Berry’s supervisor in the Sheriff’s Office, said the deputy was fired not because of the complaints, but rather for his support of Fisher’s campaign against Scott in the race for Lee County sheriff.

“To say this is politically motivated is an understatement,” Fisher said.

As a recent hire, the deputy’s first six months back in duty were a probationary period, when officers aren’t afforded the same employment protections and can be dismissed without cause.

Scott said Berry was rehired in October 2011 “against probably my better judgment” after a stint trying to work in aviation. He called Berry’s track record with the agency “spotty at best,” citing his several voluntary departures from working with the Sheriff’s Office.

The ax came down April 17 for Berry, who since 1995 has worked on and off for the Sheriff’s Office.

Until those complaints came along, “Dana was coasting along very well,” Scott said Saturday, adding however that after those reports were received, “in sum total, I was uncomfortable keeping him.”

But Fisher alleged Berry’s termination is part of a larger effort by Scott to intimidate those who oppose his re-election. Fisher described the climate in the Sheriff’s Office as having “elements of a mafioso mentality” that made it “difficult for subordinates to run” for office.

Fisher said he met Berry through the Sheriff’s Office 17 years ago and they became friends. Berry supported his campaign off-duty, and appeared in photos and videos on the campaign website.

The International Union of Police Associations, which in Lee County represents deputies and sergeants in the Sheriff’s Office, issued a statement that its attorneys will challenge Berry’s termination on the grounds that he has been denied his First Amendment rights and due process.

Scott’s actions were “highly suspicious,” said Rich Roberts, a spokesman for the union.

“All the indications are that this was more political than it had to do with the deputy’s performance,” Roberts said.

Attempts to reach Berry for comment were unsuccessful.

Fisher also considers the lateral transfer of two more of his supporters within the Sheriff’s Office — a lieutenant and a captain — to be scare tactics as well.

“Mike Scott is very concerned about his kingdom and his regime,” Fisher said.

Scott acknowledged the transfers, but said they weren’t demotions and affected neither pay nor rank of the two officers.

Fisher said the transfers were perceived as demotions because they were less desirable positions — in one case, reassignment to night shift for a lieutenant, and in another, the removal of a captain from a position supervising 15 staffers to one overseeing four.

If deputies don’t like a lateral transfer, “they are going to call it a demotion,” Scott said.

Neither the transfers nor Berry’s dismissal were politically motivated, Scott insisted.

He said he communicated to staff through email that participation in campaigns was fine, as long as it wasn’t on agency time.

Staff is “free to support any candidate they want to off-duty,” Scott said Saturday.

From The Naples Daily News.