The Double Cross

Two years ago, Ken Eggleston was Palm Beach County Sheriff Ed Bieluch's heir apparent. Now, they are implacable foes. What happened?

Neumann promoted Bieluch to captain in January 1998 -- but with the caveat that he work on getting an associate's degree, according to Eggleston. Bieluch made an attempt at college but later argued with the administration that being a captain and attending classes was too grueling a schedule. As a result, he retired from the force in January 2000.

With the 2000 elections about a year away, one incumbent was thoroughly and painfully stuck in Monte Friedkin's craw: Neumann. The Democratic leader believed that Republicans were getting too much leverage out of holding that office. "One of the problems we had was the sheriff running the Republican Party out of the sheriff's office," Friedkin bristles. "He had staff literally doing work for the Republican Party and for Jeb and George Bush. I was incensed at the whole thing. I decided I was going after Neumann." No likely candidate, however, was in the stable.

Ed Bieluch (second from left) reminisces about the good old days
Colby Katz
Ed Bieluch (second from left) reminisces about the good old days
Democratic leader Monte Friedkin swears turncoat Bieluch won't get reelection support from the party
Colby Katz
Democratic leader Monte Friedkin swears turncoat Bieluch won't get reelection support from the party

Many employees in the sheriff's office had also come to the conclusion that Neumann had to go, but not for partisan reasons. Neumann had used the office as entrée into state-level politicking and had shown, in general, a lack of interest in sheriffhood. Ernie George, president of the Police Benevolent Association, which represents more than 800 employees in the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, recalls that on disciplinary matters, Neumann was both capricious and inflexible. "Neumann would never listen to anybody else," George says. New Times left a request for an interview with Neumann's spokeswoman; Neumann did not respond.

In late 1999, Eggleston, by then a civilian, and a cadre of uniformed officers -- including Ed Bieluch -- drove to Friedkin's office to offer Bieluch as a contender. "They said, 'We've got a problem. We've got 2700 employees in the sheriff's office, and 2500 of them hate Neumann. He's destroyed the sheriff's office.' They pleaded with me to get Bieluch elected." So universal had disdain for Neumann grown among workers, Friedkin asserts, that many Democrats in the agency planned to register as Republicans to vote for Neumann's primary opponent, Fred Mascaro.

That day in Friedkin's office, Bieluch explained his position. Friedkin recounts the conversation thus: "Essentially, he said, 'I want you to know that I have a place in North Carolina. I've been in the sheriff's department for 27 years; my wife's been here 25 years. We're both retiring and moving. These guys have come to me and convinced me to run for sheriff. I've decided that after listening to them, I'm willing to give four years of my retirement to be sheriff.'" And after four years? Friedkin asked. Bieluch replied, "'I'm going to North Carolina, put my feet up on the stool and retire. I'm doing this for one term.'" And then? the party boss pressed. "'It's very simple,'" Bieluch summed up. "'Ken Eggleston is going to be my undersheriff,'" Bieluch announced. "'Four years from now, he'll be the new sheriff in this county, and you'll be in good shape for a long time.'" Friedkin threw his lot in with the Bieluch supporters.

Mindful of the previous campaign they worked on, Bieluch had approached Eggleston about managing his bid for the sheriff's seat. "I believed 100 percent in Ed Bieluch when I came onboard to help him win that race," Eggleston says. "He committed to me that we would move forward with professionalizing the agency. That was my key interest. At that time, he committed to me that I would be part of his command staff. He told me that I would be number two."

Eggleston says the campaign's inside circle recognized that Bieluch had several weaknesses going up against Neumann. "First, he couldn't speak publicly. Second, he didn't have any strong administrative abilities and lacked a formal education. And we were up against a very viable candidate who was articulate, poised, and an excellent public speaker." Eggleston had at one time supported Neumann but had become disillusioned with him. "Neumann had a lot of good ideas and promised professionalism. But he got involved in too many things on the governor's level. He lost interest in the day-to-day operations of the department, and it suffered. Our pitch to voters was: Return a law enforcement officer to a command position."

Eggleston rejects the suggestion that he was setting himself up as a puppet master. "I had loyalty to him," he declares. "My strengths are in administration and running numbers. He would be the policymaker, pointing direction. We believed in his vision."

Bieluch won by more than 55,000 votes, garnering the strongest support in the western unincorporated areas he had once patrolled.

The post-election transition was, by almost all accounts, ugly. An orgy of ill will, threats, promotions, transfers, demotions, and terminations ensued -- some of which resulted in litigation that persists 18 months later.

Glen Bassett now practices law in Riviera Beach, specializing in employment issues. It was for that expertise that PBSO hired him in August 1998 as in-house employment counsel. Bassett was living in Tampa and wasn't familiar with the county or the sheriff but had seen an ad for the position. He accepted the job and presumed it would be long-term.

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