The Sussex County Board of Personnel unanimously upheld the firing of former Deputy Sheriff Ishmael "Pete" Torres, who was dismissed for falsifying records, misappropriation of overtime and abusing county equipment.
Voting 3-0 at the June 20 appeal hearing, the board found Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson followed proper procedure in terminating Torres.
What was apparent during the 10 hours of testimony was that the board's decision hinged on GPS reports maintained on Torres' vehicle. County management cited more than 20 days when Torres' daily log sheet conflicted with his car's GPS. County officials said Torres falsified records and requested $6,000 in overtime over a 10-month period. The county conducted tests April 30 and May 11 to check the accuracy of the GPS system; both verified the system was functioning properly.
Board Chairman Dave Kenton said Torres was given every avenue available under due process. “His logs were at odds with all GPS reports,” Kenton said.
Torres and Sheriff Jeff Christopher testified that the GPS reports were inaccurate. County attorney Barry Willoughby asked both men if they disputed more than 20 days of reports.
“I can't speak about all 20 days because I haven’t done extensive research,” Christopher said, adding he does not have access to GPS reports.
Torres said several times he has no explanation for why his log sheets and GPS reports do not match. His attorney, Julieanne Murray, listed several examples of inconsistent GPS readings. Torres said on April 22, he tried to serve papers at two locations in Bridgeville at 8:55 a.m. and 9:15 a.m. – as noted on cards he left at the residences – but the GPS noted the stops at 9:35 a.m. “I'm not a certified GPS expert, so I can't explain this,” Torres said.
Murray asked her client why he wanted the personnel board appeal hearing conducted in public. “I didn't falsify records; I have nothing to hide. My mom always told me to stick to my guns and fight for what is right,” he said.
To question Torres' credibility, Willoughby asked Torres about an incident report filed March 2 when he stopped to render assistance at a crash scene near Bridgeville. Willoughby said, and Torres confirmed, that the daily log noted the time Torres stopped at the crash site was 4:40 p.m.
“Would it surprise you that Delaware State Police reported that the incident happened at 6:04 p.m.?” he asked. “Would it also surprise you that you made the call to the Sussex call board at 6:03 p.m.?”
Torres replied that the log sheets only indicate approximate times. “So 4:40 is approximately 6:04 to you?” Willoughby asked.
Willoughby said that the county's GPS report showed he was at the location at 6:04 p.m.
Sheriff Christopher calls action an attack
Sheriff Christopher was questioned for about two hours. He supported Torres, calling him an excellent deputy who was willing to go the extra mile and was always the first to volunteer for assignments. He said he did not dispute Torres' log entries and was not surprised by his requests for overtime pay, which were higher than any other deputy's for the same time period. Christopher said Torres had the second-largest area for serving papers and frequently served Family Court papers after normal business hours.
Christopher said Sussex County Council was on a witch hunt, and the action against Torres was retaliation because Christopher filed a lawsuit against council. He said council has refused to fill two open deputy positions. “It's a direct attack on me,” he said.
Willoughby asked the sheriff if he was aware the investigation of Torres began a month before the lawsuit was filed. He answered “yes” and added that council was aware a lawsuit was pending.
Willoughby calculated Torres had totaled 140 hours, or about half of his working time over a seven-week period, as idle time when he was working, but his car was not moving. When asked if that total was acceptable, Christopher said it was an acceptable range.
Torres also said it was not usual for him to leave his car running because he has had an ongoing problem keeping the battery charged.
Murray claims firing was against code
Murray said county code requires the county administrator to consult with an employee's department head before termination can take place. Under questioning, Lawson said he and Christopher did not talk about Torres after a May 3 meeting, although Christopher was sent copies of all emails involving the case. The termination took place on May 22.
Lawson said deputies and the sheriff were not cooperating with the investigation, and deputies were ordered not to speak with county staff without the sheriff in attendance. Lawson said Deputy Chief Dennis Lineweaver said on May 9 that he and other deputies could no longer speak with county staff.
“It's hard to consult when they refuse to meet with you,” Lawson said. “We were hoping to get their cooperation.”
Christopher said during a conversation with county human resources director Karen Brewington, he said he was willing to meet with county staff. “I told her to tell Todd [Lawson] to call me, but he did not call me,” Christopher said. “I never said I would not cooperate.”
When asked why he or Torres did not present any information at the pre-termination hearing on May 18 to refute the county's charges, Christopher said he didn't see the need. “My understanding was that it was a done deal and would not be reversed,” he said.
Case hangs on GPS, daily logs
“The entire case hangs on the GPS reports and daily logs. Deputy Torres knew he had a GPS on the vehicle and knew it could be checked,” Murray said in her closing.
She also said Torres' termination was a direct violation of county code because the sheriff was not notified of the firing, finding out the same time as Torres. “That sets a bad precedent and should not go unchecked,” she said.
In his closing, Willoughby said Torres and his attorney had offered no proof the GPS reports were inaccurate. He offered examples of what he called eight egregious days between Feb. 27 and April 23 where the daily logs and GPS were in conflict.
For example: On March 9, Torres' GPS has him leaving his residence at 7:27 a.m., but he noted in his log that he made stops in Ellendale at 7:05 a.m., 7:18 a.m. and 7:36 a.m. Deputies are permitted to start their work day from home.
“In all, there are 25 days of false entries with no basis to believe the GPS is inaccurate,” Willoughby said.
Torres has the option to file a lawsuit against the county in Superior Court or federal court.