First day of fired deputy hearing proves a headscratcher

June 19, 2012

It was late in the day of the hearing about the firing of Sussex County Sheriff Deputy Ismael Torres Jr.

Torres’s attorney, Julieanne Murray, had been grilling Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson about the deputy’s termination. Lawson fired Torres last month for allegedly falsifying his daily logs to qualify for overtime pay.

“I’ll just ask it point blank,” Murray said, pausing. “Are you trying to usurp the role of the constitutional officers?”

She was referring, of course, to Sheriff Jeff Christopher, who has been battling for what he says are his constitutional powers as a duly elected sheriff.

Traditionally, the Sheriff’s Office in Delaware delivers court papers. Christopher contends he has full law enforcement authority.

Going after Lawson like a prosecutor, Murray declared, “You did not consult with Sheriff Christopher when you decided you were going to terminate [Torres].”

This, it seemed, was it. The crux of the matter.

The hearing wasn’t about whether Torres had falsified his daily logs so he could qualify for overtime pay.

It was about whether Lawson had the right to fire Torres without consulting Christopher.

Except that it wasn’t.

However much Murray or Christopher or his supporters may have wished otherwise, the hearing, held June 11 in council chambers before the Sussex County Personnel Board, was very much about Torres and his daily logs.

And his car’s GPS – which automatically records what time the car is started, where it goes and when it stops.

County attorney Barry Willoughby laid out the evidence in mind-numbing detail, leading Karen Brewington, Sussex County human resources director, through testimony about Torres’s daily log.

Here’s a quick look at one morning. On Feb. 27, Torres’s meticulously recorded log shows him busy serving court documents in Bridgeville, beginning at 7:05 a.m.

Further notations for first and second attempts at serving papers are listed at 7:16, 7:20, 7:30 and 7:45. (It’s not unusual for second or even third attempts to be necessary since people being served papers often move or make themselves scarce.)

The log continues with more stops at 7:58, 8:26, 8:39 and 9 a.m.

Finally at 10:30, the log shows him back in Georgetown.

Car’s GPS tells a different story

It sounds like a busy morning, but here’s the problem: The GPS on Torres’s car showed it didn’t leave Torres’s driveway, in Georgetown, until 10:18 a.m.

Willoughby took Brewington through day after day of similar testimony: Torres’s log recording multiple stops at multiple sites; his car’s GPS showing it to be sitting in his driveway.

It also showed his car idling for long periods of time – a half hour or more – at other locations where he had no official business.

Torres used these logs to qualify for time and a half pay, which kicks in at more than 40 work hours. Since August, Torres received more than $6,000 in overtime pay.

That, Willoughby said, is many “multiples of anybody else in the department.” The second highest amount, he said, was for Chief Deputy Dennis Lineweaver, who received $1,400 in the same time period.

The county, taking what it called a conservative estimate, terminated Torres for overbilling the county $784.89 in overtime pay.

Murray tried to prove the GPS was flawed, asking how the report could show Torres’s car moving to a different address despite a recorded speed of zero miles per hour.

“How do you change addresses without moving?” Murray asked Deputy County Administrator Hal Godwin, drawing soft snickers from Torres’ and Christopher’s supporters.

Godwin explained the addresses were right next to each other, noting the county’s GPS didn’t have the accuracy of a guided missile.

“But you said it was accurate,” said someone from the audience. (In general, the audience of 60 people, many of whom appeared to support the sheriff, remained respectfully quiet.)

Godwin also testified that he had taken Torres’s car – with Torres accompanying him – on a short drive and then checked what he had logged against the GPS report.  His log matched the GPS, he said.

In addition, the county received a sworn statement from the vendor saying the GPS was working properly.

The overall impression from the testimony was that the system worked pretty well. It wasn’t as if the GPS showed Torres’s car in Bridgeville at 9:02 a.m. and then in Milton at 9:04. Then you’d have a reason to toss the evidence.

Even the sheriff’s office admitted as much later when Willoughby questioned Lineweaver, Torres’s direct supervisor.

Lineweaver said he believed the GPS reports had discrepancies, but said, “Largely, I would agree it [the GPS] is accurate.”

So why make the personnel hearing public, which wasn’t required?

Sheriff Jeff Christopher himself is scheduled to testify Wednesday, June 20, with the hearing beginning at 9 a.m. in county council chambers. Maybe we’ll find out.

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