Sussex County officials say they recently fired a sheriff’s deputy for padding his work hours and requesting overtime he did not earn. But those who support the deputy say he was fired as a political move against Sheriff Jeff Christopher.
A public hearing to review the termination of former Deputy Ishmael Torres was held in Sussex County Council Chambers in Georgetown June 10. Sussex County attorney Barry Willoughby defended Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson in his decision to fire Torres for misappropriation of overtime, falsifying documents and abuse of county equipment. “There is no political agenda,” Willoughby said in opening arguments. “It’s just an employee who engaged in misconduct.”
Torres’ attorney, Julianne Murray, said documents supporting the dismissal – a daily activity log and GPS reports from Torres’ car – are flawed. “The documents have to be wrong,” Murray said. “The investigation was cloaked in secrecy and not very thorough.”
Sussex County Human Resources Director Karen Brewington was the first witness to testify for the county. She said an investigation revealed inconsistency between where Torres said he was on a daily activity log sheet and where he was according to a GPS system in his county vehicle.
Brewington said Torres became a full-time county employee on Aug. 1, 2011. Since then, she said, Torres has been paid more than $6,000 in overtime in addition to his salary – about five times more than other deputies in the Sheriff’s Department.
Brewington said Torres was audited from Feb. 27, 2012, to April 27, 2012. On an overhead projector, she compared Torres’ daily logs to his GPS tracker. The documents showed Torres frequently logged that he left home at 8 a.m. to serve court documents at various locations in Bridgeville and Greenwood. But according to his GPS, Torres did not leave his home until minutes or hours later.
The GPS reports also showed Torres spent from 30 minutes to more than an hour idling at Georgetown Middle School, where his children go to school, and two locations on Wilson Hill Road and Fruitland Road.
Brewington said she conservatively estimates Torres had been overpaid by nearly $800, not including time when his car was turned on but sat idle in his driveway or another location.
Brewington said she and Lawson held a pre-termination meeting with Torres to allow him a chance to explain the findings. “We felt none of our issues had been addressed,” Brewington said.
During cross-examination, Murray asked if Brewington compared other deputies’ logs against vehicle GPS reports.
Brewington said yes; she also looked at Deputy Sheriff Pat Smith’s logs and GPS because Smith also turns in overtime. “Her GPS and daily log sheet matched her work,” Brewington said. Of Torres, she said, “He had the most idle time in the entire department.”
Murray said Torres was not given detailed dates and times to account for. She said his only warning of the investigation was a pre-termination letter he received before he was fired less than one week later. “How is he supposed to refute it?” Murray asked. “How is that due process?”
During her hour-long testimony, Brewington shot one nervous glance at Torres and then avoided looking at him the rest of the day.
Sheriff Jeff Christopher got up from his seat multiple times to whisper to Torres and Murray, who were seated next to one another in the front row of the gallery.
About 40 members of the public sat in council chambers to watch the hearing. Whispered comments and chuckling showed most of them were there in support of Torres.
Sussex County Deputy Administrator Harold Godwin also testified. He said he oversees county vehicles, and Torres’ vehicle was functioning properly. He said the vehicle had been given a new battery March 6.
Godwin said Torres told him he stopped at Wilson Hill Road regularly to see a mechanic friend. But Godwin said Torres’ GPS showed he was at the address next door to the mechanic on Wilson Hill Road. Also, he said, he called the mechanic, who told him he had not worked on any county vehicles.
In her cross-examination, Murray showed Godwin GPS reports from Torres’ car, which showed Torres at four different, neighboring addresses while the car was going 0 miles per hour. “How do you change addresses without moving?” Murray asked. “I think these reports are flawed.”
Godwin said the GPS system sends a signal once every two minutes. “This is not a guided missile,” he said.
Lawson testified he made the final decision to fire Torres. He said idle time for deputies is normal because they work on laptops in their vehicles. “That is their mobile office,” he said.
But, Lawson said, in two months, Torres spent more than half of his time idling. “There’s no other deputies that sit in their driveways for four hours,” Lawson said. “And they’re not returning home in the middle of the day.”
Murray asked Lawson why, in his termination letter to Torres, he called visits to the mechanic on Wilson Hill Road unfounded.
“I don’t know if he was visiting a mechanic or not,” Lawson said. “That car is owned by the county taxpayers.” Lawson said Torres should have visited a county-authorized mechanic, not a friend.
At the start of his testimony, Lawson looked down while he shifted and straightened papers and other items in front of him. But then, he glared up at Murray and didn’t break eye contact with her until her cross-examination was over.
Murray said Lawson should have included Christopher in the decision to fire Torres because Christopher is the head of the department. “Once you decided to move toward termination, you did not talk to Sheriff Christopher about it,” Murray said.
“And I say I did,” Lawson said.
“And I say you didn’t,” Murray said.
In his redirect, Willoughby said Murray should focus on the facts of the case, not argue with witnesses.
Murray then called three witnesses to testify before the hearing was recessed for the day.
A New Jersey man testified he met Torres in April and was impressed with him. In May, Torres asked the man to testify on his behalf. “It’s nice to see people go above and beyond the job,” the witness said.
Torres’ neighbor, Justin Whitaker, testified he helped Torres jumpstart his county car once or twice every week. “It started happening pretty frequently,” Whitaker said.
The neighbor said he asked Torres to let his car idle after each jump so the battery could recharge.
Chief Deputy Dennis Lineweaver testified, in uniform, that he was Torres’ immediate supervisor, and he never had problems with Torres’ performance on the job.
Lineweaver said he verified Torres’ whereabouts with his activities on the daily log. He said he also called the Bridgeville police chief to confirm Torres had served court papers in the town on certain days.
Lineweaver also testified the county vehicles seem to run out of battery power more quickly since GPS units were installed. “We’ve had quite a few problems with vehicles,” he said.
Lineweaver said he drove Torres and two other deputies in uniform to a Sussex County Council meeting on March 27 because he was concerned legislation council was scheduled to discuss could damage the Sheriff’s Office.
House Bill 325, which would clearly state sheriffs and sheriff’s deputies in Delaware do not have arrest authority, awaits a vote in the Senate. If the Senate passes the measure, Gov. Jack Markell could sign it into law before the end of the June.
In Torres’ daily log he listed the time he was at the county council meeting as hours worked.
Lineweaver said he does not remember ordering the deputies to accompany him to the meeting, and Torres did not use his county vehicle to attend.
Sussex County Personnel Board members David Kenton, Michael Owens and Clay Yocum were largely silent during the hearing. The board decided to reconvene at 9 a.m., Wednesday, June 20.
Murray said when the hearing reassembled she would call Christopher to testify.