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Florida sheriff fires deputy union chief after COVID-19 fight

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Florida sheriff fires deputy union chief after COVID-19 fight

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A Florida sheriff fired the president of his department’s deputies’ union on Thursday, capping a three-year battle that escalated when the union’s leader accused the sheriff of failing to provide deputies adequate protective equipment against COVID-19.

Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony said in a press release that he fired Deputy Jeff Bell for engaging in ‘corrupt practices’ and ‘conduct unbecoming’ of a deputy , claiming that Bell had lied about him to local reporters in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent his election. to a full term in November 2020. He said the office’s professional standards board unanimously recommended the dismissal.

“Evidence shows that Bell used corrupt practices to try to prevent me from being elected sheriff by providing misinformation and lies to the media to create fear and mistrust among employees (of the Broward Sheriff’s Office ) and within the community during a global pandemic,” Tony said. “This type of behavior is egregious at all times but even more harmful and shameful during an unprecedented health crisis.”

No one answered the phone Thursday afternoon at the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies’ Association offices, and Bell did not immediately respond to a text message from The Associated Press. He told the South Florida Sun Sentinel he would fight his dismissal in court. A 26-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, Bell has served as president of the 1,400-member union since 2015.

“It’s so personal for Greg Tony,” Bell told the Fort Lauderdale newspaper. “He cannot separate business from individuals. Anything you bring against the sheriff’s office, it comes across as a personal attack on him.

Tony was named sheriff in 2019 by Governor Ron DeSantis after the governor fired former sheriff Scott Israel for his alleged mishandling of the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

The union initially supported the pick, but Tony and Bell soon began to clash after the sheriff disciplined the deputies for alleged excessive force. Bell said MPs had only followed the policy changes Tony had made. Tony said he made no policy changes.

Their animosity reached a crescendo in April 2020 following the death of a Broward MP from COVID-19, the first of at least three Broward MPs and six civilian employees to succumb to the disease.

Bell wrote an op-ed shortly after the death for the Sun Sentinel accusing Tony of not providing enough masks and other protections to deputies at the start of the pandemic.

“Tony politically toyed with facts like Nero as Rome burned,” Bell wrote. “This would-be savior of BSO, the man who came to power with the support of distraught parents in Parkland and this union, has failed to show leadership.”

Tony quickly suspended Bell with pay on charges of lying, claiming the union president knew the agency had provided MPs with 70,000 masks and hand sanitizer. He ordered Bell to investigate.

In a 200-page internal affairs report released Thursday, the sheriff told investigators that Bell began attacking him because he refused to promote the union leader to captain, “which was three ranks at the above his current rank”.

“He used the pandemic to publicly amplify these grievances to hamper my candidacy for the position of sheriff,” Tony told investigators.

The highest rank held by Tony before being appointed sheriff was sergeant in a suburban police department. He had resigned from that department and was running a consulting firm when DeSantis appointed him.

Bell, when asked by investigators if he had asked Tony for a promotion, replied “Absolutely not,” according to the report. In the interview, he told investigators that regardless of what Tony said about the agency handing out COVID-19 masks, many deputies told him they hadn’t received any.

Investigators also asked Bell if he disclosed to the media that 14-year-old Tony was arrested for fatally shooting an 18-year-old neighbor during a fight at his family’s Philadelphia home in 1993. Court records were destroyed, but Tony said the shooting was later ruled in self-defense. Tony was criticized for not disclosing the arrest to his former employers or DeSantis before it appeared in local media in May 2020, a month after Bell was suspended.

“I wish I could take credit for giving this to the media, but I didn’t,” Bell told investigators. “If you find out that an elected government official lied and covered up his involvement in what was then a homicide arrest, I think a lot of voters will want to know about it.”

The story apparently didn’t hurt Tony’s candidacy – he easily beat former Sheriff Israel in the Democratic primary and his Republican opponent in the 2020 general election.

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