Michael Amon

In Md., Lawmen Elect to Play Politics

Posted in The Washington Post by michaelamon on December 7, 2006

Oct. 12, 2002 — The Washington Post, p. B1
Calvert and St. Mary’s Sheriff’s Races Stir Scandal, Division in the Ranks
Michael Amon, Washington Post Staff Writer

In Southern Maryland, where elected sheriffs are still the top lawmen in their counties, there’s an old saying that every four years their deputies are transformed from law enforcement officers to political operatives.

This year, the adage has the ring of truth.

Two St. Mary’s County sergeants are caught in a messy race to replace a retiring incumbent, with two controversies tarring the Democratic candidate and a powerful lieutenant.

Meanwhile, the Calvert County race has devolved into a power struggle between the deputy sheriffs, who have endorsed their boss, and Calvert’s state police troopers, who have endorsed a former trooper for the job.

The Maryland Troopers Association endorsement of Republican challenger Mike Evans has infuriated some deputies, who now use their off-duty time for political work, such as knocking on doors, to help Sheriff John A. Bartlett Jr. (D).

“Why would the Maryland State Police go to great lengths to not support us,?” asked Detective Michael Moore, the Calvert Fraternal Order of Police president.

Such power struggles are nothing new for Southern Maryland law enforcement. But this year’s campaigns have also featured an unending barrage of scandalous revelations, politically tinged investigations, leaked documents and spirited letters to the editor that local political observers say is unprecedented.

“It seems like every week there’s something new,” said Vernon Gray, a Republican candidate for St. Mary’s County commissioner.

The scandals have prompted one candidate to propose creating a citizen advisory panel, and both counties have toyed, in recent years, with turning law enforcement powers over to an appointed police chief, as most cities and large suburbs have done. But in both St. Mary’s and Calvert, the system has proved stubbornly resistant to change.

This year’s elections have provided Calvert with a fresh set of scandals.

In the primary alone, two Republican candidates were investigated and charged by the sheriff’s office; Bartlett forced Evans, now a deputy sheriff, to take a physical examination for a 24-year-old knee injury; and another GOP candidate asked the state’s attorney’s office to probe three-year-old assault allegations against his ex-girlfriend, a sheriff’s lieutenant recently promoted by Bartlett (no charges were filed).

Now Vonzell Ward, a two-term Republican sheriff who lost in the primary after Bartlett charged him criminally in connection with confidential documents leaked to the press, says he may run a write-in campaign. The idea has dismayed Evans, who grew up with Ward and considered him a friend.

“I’ve tried to talk to him, but he hasn’t returned my calls,” Evans said.

Ward’s potential candidacy complicates an election that has already driven a political wedge between two law enforcement agencies.

The sheriff’s office and state troopers have always had competitive but cordial relations. The two agencies split law enforcement duties, and deputies and troopers often race to see who can get to a 911 call first. But a feud has emerged during the election, deputies and troopers say.

Bumper stickers that say “Anybody But Bartlett” were distributed throughout the Prince Frederick barrack. Some troopers put up campaign signs and hand out literature for Evans, who spent 15 years as a state trooper in Calvert. State law allows such political activity, as long as the officers are off duty.

Some troopers grumble about Bartlett’s relationship with state police Col. David B. Mitchell, whom Bartlett once worked for at the Prince George’s County Police Department. They say the sheriff shuns the local barrack commander, Lt. Homer Rich, and Rich said recently the “relationship between the two departments has become considerably worse over the last year or so.”

Bartlett said he has a right to talk to higher-ranking officials. Mitchell said Bartlett “follows the same procedures as the state’s 23 other sheriffs” and said the two agencies’ troubles are more imagined than substantive.

In St. Mary’s, the department’s image has suffered under election-year scrutiny and two damaging controversies.

One imbroglio involves a 19-year department veteran, Sgt. David D. Zylak, the Democratic nominee for sheriff. Last month, The Washington Post reported that he faces an internal administrative charge of failure to perform his duty in connection with a jail suicide in September 2001. The commander of the detention center at the time, Zylak is accused of failing to put a 19-year-old inmate on a 24-hour watch, despite the teenager’s previous attempts at suicide. The teen, who was awaiting trial on burglary charges, hanged himself in his cell.

Zylak, who has built his campaign around his command experience, will not comment on the charge.

In addition, the department’s second-in-command, Steven M. Doolan, was recently suspended and demoted from captain to lieutenant amid an investigation into the disappearance of as much as $ 80,000 in construction material from the department’s evidence room. No charges have been filed.

Doolan was briefly investigated in 1999, along with six other deputies, in connection with a memorable Election Day prank known as the “Newspaper Caper.” He and the other deputies bought more than 1,300 copies of a county newspaper that contained negative stories about the sheriff and the Republican candidate for prosecutor, making it difficult to find a copy. No charges were brought.

The recent embarrassments have made it hard to run a clean campaign, said the Republican candidate for sheriff, Sgt. Mickey M. Bailey.

“I try to stay away from it . . . but you can’t avoid it,” Bailey said. “You try to give voters the best answer you can and tell them how things will change if you’re in charge.”

Zylak and some St. Mary’s commissioner candidates say the department should obtain national accreditation. Some power brokers have privately floated a proposal to take control of the detention center away from the sheriff and create a county department of corrections.

Bailey has proposed something called a citizens’ advisory committee. It would not have investigatory powers, but Bailey says it would help the department’s image.

Previous attempts to reform the departments, in part to remove the impact of election-year politics, have met total failure.

A proposal last year to replace the Calvert sheriff with an appointed police chief met a tide of public opposition last year, despite the forced resignation of Ward from the sheriff’s position months earlier.

In St. Mary’s, some officials looked to create a county police department in 1998, after deputies were involved in a series of controversies. But the plan failed to move forward, and any momentum it might have had has died, Gray said, “probably because of the fiasco that occurred in Calvert County.”

James K. Raley Jr., a former department captain, said St. Mary’s residents are left with two conflicting views of the sheriff’s office. The department presided over a 19 percent drop in crime last year and received a 66 percent approval rating in a recent survey of county residents.

At the same time, a series of investigations and lawsuits leave the impression of an agency in disarray.

“People still seem to have a high regard for the sheriff’s office, but in the law enforcement business, you have 90 guys running around with arrest powers and guns, and sometimes things don’t go right even if you want them to,” Raley said.

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