By Michael E. Miller
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Sheriff Ed Bieluch is decked out in full regalia: green uniform topcoat, slacks adorned with an ankle-to-hip gold stripe, white gloves, and a neck scarf. His hat, broad-brimmed and straight, covers most of his short, white hair. Aviator sunglasses obscure his eyes. As he stands before a throng gathered June 7 to dedicate the opening of the Palm Beach County Sheriff Office's District 7 Substation in west unincorporated Boca Raton, Bieluch looks the quintessential lawman -- though from an earlier era.
Bieluch, all six and a half feet of him, towers over the officials beside him. The 60-year-old carries no prepared speech; he instead offers anecdotes from the 1970s, when he first patrolled as a deputy in the county. "Most of you probably haven't lived here that long," Bieluch says to the audience of about 200. "It was a no man's land out here." Interstate 95 ended at Okeechobee Boulevard. Farmland covered the landscape west of Boca Raton, Delray Beach, and Boynton Beach. The few who did live in this generally inhospitable terrain were migrants in labor camps. Those workers, however, were plentiful enough to keep the area's two deputies busy. Nightlife in the camps involved boozing and gambling, which routinely ended in brawling.
After one particular fight, Bieluch recalls for the crowd, the two deputies arrested six men and were then faced with the predicament of transporting them all in one car to the station house. They succeeded in cramming five into the back seat; the sixth climbed into the trunk at their behest. In the hubbub of booking the men later, the deputies forgot the trunked captive, whose plaintive thumping was eventually heard by a deputy from a new shift. "They let him go," Bieluch recounts. "They probably figured he'd done his time. There were no lawsuits, no claims of civil liberties violations." He pauses. "We've come a long way."
Given the number of lawsuits Bieluch's department has weathered since he took office January 2, 2001, the sheriff might just yearn for those less-litigious days. He clearly has one leg planted firmly in the past while the other steps into the complex reality of what the department has become. The sheriff's office employs almost 3000 men and women, more than 1000 of whom are sworn officers. It's among the ten largest departments in the country, operating on an annual budget of close to a quarter billion dollars. After Bieluch's election in November 2000, many considered him the man who would finally modernize the department by setting professional standards in hiring and promoting. Scores within the department thought that the previous sheriff, Republican Robert Neumann, was imperious and lacked an understanding of deputies' work. Bieluch, a quiet and hard-working former captain who ran as a Democrat, seemed to be Neumann's opposite: He was a soldier's soldier.
Few had more to gain from Bieluch's election than his campaign manager, Ken Eggleston, whose ambitions included professionalizing the department and, eventually, becoming sheriff. Monte Friedkin, chairman of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party, also labored mightily to snatch the sheriff's office away from Republican control.
Today, Eggleston and Friedkin aren't even on speaking terms with Bieluch.
"He's just double-crossed everybody," Friedkin laments, "and there's nothing I can do about it."
"The sheriff never made the transition from watch commander -- that's the ceiling he hit," Eggleston asserts.
The fracture shines a light on the ugly side of mixing raw, partisan politics with an agency whose primary mission is patrolling the streets and guarding the jails. Upon taking office, Bieluch approved a flurry of transfers and promotions that smacked of the very favoritism he'd campaigned against. Thirteen of those whom Bieluch tried to fire or demote have filed suit against the sheriff's office -- actions that have cost the department no less than $200,000 in settlements and legal fees, with two cases still pending.
Indeed, Eggleston, who had risen only to sergeant before leaving the department in 1999, found himself elevated to second in command and being groomed for a run at the sheriff's seat in 2004. A dispute between Bieluch and Eggleston, however, closed the door on the young man's aspirations for the top-cop spot. Undaunted, Eggleston used the latitude of his position to seek a greater prize: the U.S. Congress. As Bieluch consolidated his power within the department, however, Friedkin claims Eggleston's ambition became a threat -- and not just as heir apparent to the sheriff's seat. Bieluch had developed ties with U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, whom Eggleston was positioning himself to challenge in November.
Bieluch didn't hesitate to sic the agency's internal affairs investigators on Eggleston and his nascent campaign. Over Eggleston's protests that the inquiry should have been conducted by an outside agency, Bieluch tossed him out of the department a year and a half after the protégé had helped him take office.
Last week, Eggleston announced that he was dropping out of the race for Congress and would concentrate on family and "clearing my name" -- by filing a lawsuit against Bieluch for interfering with his campaign. Having experienced both the upside and the downside of Bieluch's penchant for cronyism, he maintains that the sheriff's capricious ways have damaged far more than his own political aspirations.