Updated Jan. 30 12:54 p.m.
La Plata, MD – A Charles County Circuit Court jury determined that former sheriff Rex Coffey had full authority, according to county code, to demote Troy Berry from his command staff position as captain in 2010.
The verdict was the culmination of a week-long trial in La Plata between the current and former sheriff over Berry’s contention that when he was demoted from captain back to lieutenant following Coffey’s re-election in the November 2010 campaign for political reasons.
Despite disparagement over what the former sheriff may or may not have said to Berry when he was being put back in rank, it appeared his actions spoke louder than any words he may have uttered at the time.
Coffey’s attorney, Jason L. Levine, was able to convince the jury that his client’s intentions were not malicious, and that Coffey stepped Berry up three pay grades despite the loss of rank, so that his salary would not be as adversely affected.
He also demonstrated that when Berry was given an unfavorable performance evaluation, Coffey said, “just change it” to a favorable review.
“He didn’t want to hurt Berry,” Levine uttered like a broken record throughout the trial, “he just wanted him off the command staff.”
In fact, it appeared from the outset that Coffey had the law on his side.
The Charles County Code clearly outlined that the sheriff could appoint or demote people to his command staff at his pleasure, “with or without cause,” Levine stressed.
The eight-woman, two-man jury agreed when they returned their verdict after about an hour of deliberation Friday, Jan. 30.
The fear in local political and law enforcement circles was that a negative verdict might predicate having to change county code to alleviate any “political retribution” from officers in the future. That seems unlikely to happen in the wake of the decision for Coffey.
Joseph “Buddy” Gibson, a former officer under Coffey’s tenure who was called as a witness in the case, said in the aftermath that he was pleased with the decision.
“I just felt given the evidence that there was no way a jury could see it any other way,” he said.
Contact Joseph Norris at firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated Jan. 30
La Plata, MD – Was it political retaliation or mandated right?
That seems to be the key question in the civil jury trial in a tale of two sheriffs, Rex Coffey and Troy Berry.
A day after former Charles County Sheriff Rex Coffey testified that when he demoted Berry and Capt. David Saunders from the rank of captain to lieutenant five days after his 2010 re-election and showed them a Maryland Independent advertisement from 2006 in which both individuals were listed among officers supporting then-sheriff Fred Davis, “I told them I had put this behind me.”
Saunders contradicted that testimony Tuesday, Jan. 27, stating that when the 2010 meeting with Coffey took place, the sheriff showed him the advertisement and stated, “I never forgot who didn’t support me.”
Berry echoed that statement in his testimony in Charles County Circuit Court Wednesday, Jan. 28, saying that when Coffey demoted him, he told him it wasn’t in regard to his performance.
“He said I didn’t support him politically,” Berry said. “He showed me the ad and told me he never forgot who worked for his opponent. He also said I had too cozy of a relationship with the state’s attorney’s office.”
Berry beat Coffey for the office in last’s year’s primary by 64 percent and in emotional testimony said he was humiliated and felt degraded by the “demotion.”
His wife Amanda also testified that when her husband came home, he told her he had “been demoted because he didn’t support Coffey for re-election.”
The lawsuit will be decided by 10 jurors Friday after impassioned pleas from Berry’s attorney Timothy Maloney and Coffey’s, Jason L. Levine Jan. 29.
County policy may hinge on the outcome of the verdict and there are already rumblings that the jury’s decision could affect the future policy of the sheriff’s office. Maloney told the jury there is a lot riding on the outcome of this verdict.
“You are being asked, in a way, to set standards,” Maloney said in his closing arguments. “This is not just politics, this is far beyond Coffey and Berry. The question you have to answer is, should someone of rank in the sheriff’s office, some who have careers of 18, 20 or 30 years, have to worry every four years when a new sheriff is elected, are they going to be demoted, are they going to be put on midnight shift if they didn’t support him politically?
“Your verdict is going to determine the future of your law enforcement agency,” he said.
The four-day trial has seen dramatically different testimony from both sides of the fence, from former Charles County State’s Attorney Leonard C. Collins Jr., who Levine said “wanted to run both the state’s attorney’s office and the sheriff’s department,” to former officers under Coffey’s administration and Berry’s as well, legal advisor Phil Hinkle and Joseph “Buddy” Gibson. It gave an unprecedented look into the internal workings of the Charles County Sheriff’s Office from the rank and file and what is expected of them, and what happens to those who cross the line while on duty.
Levine stressed once again at closing arguments, has he had many times throughout the trial, “Sheriff Coffey didn’t want to hurt Troy Berry. He just wanted him off the command staff.” He pointed out Coffey’s actions to increase Berry’s salary three pay grades when he was demoted so that his salary would not be as adversely affected, and his decision to reverse an unsatisfactory performance evaluation that was never signed by Coffey or ever placed in his personal file. He dismissed the Brady Disclosures, saying the former sheriff never prevented Berry from making disclosures to then state’s attorney Collins, calling them the “red herring” of this case. Once again, Levine emphasized county code allowed the sheriff to remove members of his command staff “with or without cause,” and that Coffey never told Berry he couldn’t go to Collins with Brady disclosures.
Maloney, in his final argument, stressed, “He [Coffey] kept the ad on the wall ‘so he could put it behind him.’ That’s absurd,” he said. “He never put it behind him.”
He said Berry had a “constitutional duty” to report to the state’s attorney information regarding officers who had given false testimony in cases, among them Joseph “Buddy” Gibson, who resigned from the CCSO in 2001 and whose name was on a list of officers Berry was investigating along with Collins, was also was the officer who gave Berry an “unsatisfactory” performance evaluation, citing this connections to the state’s attorney office and the sharing of confidential information regarding officers.
Before sending everyone home after four long days, Maloney pointed to Judge Maureen Lamasney.
“She is the judge of the law,” Maloney said. “You are the judge of this case.”
There are those who would say Levine, who also represents the state of Maryland, has the law on his side, but as many a Charles County Circuit Court judge can tell you, no one can ever tell what a jury will do.
Contact Joseph Norris at email@example.com
Updated Jan. 28
La Plata, MD – There was a political advertisement from a 2006 edition of the Maryland Independent which hung on the wall in the hallway of Rex Coffey’s La Plata office during his two terms as Charles County Sheriff from 2006-2014.
In the advertisement—promoting Coffey’s former opponent Fred Davis—were listed the names of dozens of officers from the Charles County Sheriff’s Office who supported Davis.
Coffey said he kept the ad out of sight, and only had it there to remind him that former Charles County State’s Attorney Leonard C. Collins Jr., who he had considered a close personal friend, had supported Davis; had “stabbed him in the back.”
That advertisement has been part of the focus in the lawsuit filed against Coffey in 2013 by Troy Berry, winner of the 2014 election for sheriff.
Coffey took the witness stand during the second day of the trial, Tuesday, Jan. 27 before visiting Judge Maureen Lamasney in Charles County Circuit Court.
Berry’s attorney, Timothy Maloney, tried repeatedly to get the former sheriff to admit, that when Coffey demoted Berry and Lieut. David Saunders in 2010 following his re-election, that he showed the ad to both men and proclaimed, “I never forgot who supported my opponent.”
Coffey successively denied saying any such thing, testifying under oath that when he showed the ad to the two men, it was to say, “I have put all of this behind me.”
The former sheriff has said throughout the trial that he “wasn’t out to hurt him” when he demoted Berry from the rank of captain back to lieutenant in 2010.
Coffey said when he demoted Berry to lieutenant, he also upped his pay grade three steps in an effort to lessen the financial impact.
“Again, I wasn’t trying to hurt him, I just wanted him away from me,” Coffey said, noting he reassigned Berry to commander of District 3.
“The county code gives me the right to move him with or without cause,” Coffey said. “It wasn’t an election issue. It was not connected to politics at all. I didn’t see it as a big deal.”
Maloney, also questioned Coffey about another officer, Dave Saunders, who was demoted at the same time as Berry.
“He gave me cause,” the former sheriff said. “He thought his way was the only way to do things. He was a hard person to work with. I worked with the guy for four years. He was disagreeable. He was never in accord with what I wanted to do. The county code gave me that authority.”
Coffey testified that he promoted both men to captain when he was first elected, Berry because “he was already in that position” on a temporary basis.
When Coffey’s attorney, Jason Levine, cross-examined the former sheriff, he had Coffey highlight with a magic marker the number of names on the Davis 2006 ad, of officers he had promoted despite having supported his opponent.
Levine was able to demonstrate that Coffey had promoted at least seven of the officers listed in the ad, including Saunders and Berry.
“I was a guy of second chances,” he said.
Testimony will continue Wednesday, Jan. 28 as the civil jury trial enters its third day.
Contact Joseph Norris at firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated Jan. 27:
Collins, an attorney for 30 years and former prosecutor in Charles County, said he loved working with the Charles County Sheriff’s Office.
“The people who comprised the rank and file of the Charles County Sheriff’s Office always tried to do the right thing,” Collins said.
When asked what the term “Brady’s Disclosure” referred to, Collins said it occurred in the 1960s when a defendant named Brady was prosecuted for murder and convicted when the prosecutor withheld information that another couple had admitted to the crime. The argument went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled prosecutors had to turn over information which could exonerate a defendant or lessen the penalty they would face if convicted despite the evidence.
“To withhold evidence is a violation of the canon of ethics,” Collins said.
Collins said he specifically wrote a letter in September 2008 to then Sheriff Coffey about an officer who had “testified untruthfully” in a case in Calvert County and was then hired by the Charles County Sheriff’s Office.
Collins wrote the sheriff again in September 2009, including a copy of his original letter, after he failed to receive a response.
“His [the officer’s] tenure in Calvert County ended after that happened,” Collins said. “Then the Charles County Sheriff’s Office hired him.”
“Did you have a conversation with Sheriff Coffey about this?” asked Berry’s attorney, Matthew M. Bryant.
“There was no meeting,” he said, adding that the officer remained on the force. In a later incident in Charles County, Collins said the officer in question left a convenience store with a soda without purchasing it.
“Berry told me there was an incident, I asked if he had video from the store,” he added. “He told me there was video. “After I saw the video I called Sheriff Coffey to tell him about this. I told him I had seen the video and read the field report. I told him he had to get rid of this guy. He told me maybe the officer had paid for the drink. At one point he said to me, ‘I hate it when officers eat cheese on their fellow officers.’ ”
Coffey’s attorney, Jason L. Levine, asked Collins during cross-examination if the evidence he gathered on the officer led to a conviction.
“He left the sheriff’s office and that was it,” Collins said.
Collins said that when Berry was demoted, he did not like his replacement because he had no experience in investigation.
The civil jury trial is expected to last three-to-five days.
Contact Joseph Norris at joe.norris@thebaynetcom
A key component of the trial centers around what is called “Brady’s Disclosure,” where if an officer violated the law or lied under oath regarding the investigation of a case, that could affect the testimony of the officer in future cases. As internal affairs investigator, Berry was required, according to his attorneys, Matthew M. Bryant and Timothy Maloney, to provide then-state’s attorney for Charles County Leonard Collins, with that information if someone hired by the Charles County Sheriff’s Office had such a blemish on their record. Testimony would focus on whether Berry provided information to Collins before telling then-Sheriff Rex Coffey.
Bryant also said Berry was given an evaluation for the time period from November 2009 to November 2010 marked “unsatisfactory.” When Berry questioned the evaluation, he was given another, marked “satisfactory.”
“Can one day it be unsatisfactory and the next day satisfactory?” Bryant asked.
Bryant said Coffey demoted Berry from captain to lieutenant and reduced his salary.
“The state is going to tell you this is not a big deal,” he continued. “Do not let them say this is not a big deal because you’re only talking about a $16,000 difference in pay.
“At the end of the day, this is about getting police to follow the law,” Bryant added. “You are the consciousness of the community. It is up for you to decide, how important is it for police to follow the law?”
Jason L. Levine, representing the State of Maryland and Rex Coffey, said that the “very filing of Sheriff Berry’s lawsuit is about politics.
“The very filing of this lawsuit propelled him into the office of sheriff,” Levine said. “Rest assured, Mr. Maloney is not going to ask you for anything other than the money.”
Levine outlined Coffey’s 23 years with the sheriff’s office, his retirement in 1996 as a lieutenant and subsequent political campaigns for sheriff, running first in 1998, then in 2002, losing both times to then-Sheriff Fred Davis before beating the incumbent in 2006.
“It’s very important that you know when he won, he [Coffey] appointed him [Berry] to captain,” Levine said, “this person who they just described as a political retaliator.”
He described Berry’s promotion as belonging to the “upper echelon” of the sheriff’s office, “the sheriff’s most trusted advisors.”
Levine said those appointed to captain, “above the rank and file,” served at the sheriff’s pleasure.
“He can appoint and demote who he wants to,” he added. “He doesn’t need a reason. He wants people who care about the job, who share his vision. His members have to be on the same page, people who you can have confidence in, who respect you, who believe in your leadership.
“Berry was promoted by the sheriff, who later regretted that decision,” he said. “It’s not because Berry was a bad person. It was because he didn’t respect Rex Coffey. It became apparent he didn’t agree with what the sheriff wanted to do. He gave the sheriff the cold shoulder. The refusal of Captain Berry to keep the sheriff informed of a pattern of misconduct in the sheriff’s office in major cases—the sheriff has to know what’s going on. He would get phone calls from then-state’s attorney Collins about things the sheriff didn’t know anything about. He said to Troy Berry, ‘you have to brief me on what’s going on. Nothing is wrong with what you’re doing, just stop by here first.’ Berry doesn’t comply, finally Rex said, ‘I want this guy away from me.’ “
Levine said when Coffey was re-elected in 2010, he demoted Berry to lieutenant, but upped his pay grade two steps so that his salary would not be as greatly impacted.
“He didn’t want to hurt him, he just wanted him away from him,” he said. “This is not political retaliation.”
He also maintained that Coffey did not do Berry’s evaluation, but when it was questioned, he said, “ ‘ Just give him a satisfactory.’ Again, he didn’t want to hurt him, he just wanted him somewhere else.”
Levine claimed Berry waited three years to file his lawsuit against Coffey, and the timing coincided with his announcement that he was running for sheriff of Charles County.
“That was no coincidence,” Levine said.
Former Charles County State’s Attorney Leonard Collins will be the first witness in the case.
Contact Joseph Norris at email@example.com