By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
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Bassett, now 48 years old, is slim and wears large, thin, wire-rimmed glasses beneath his balding pate. His voice remains calm even when describing highly charged events that led to his termination. Bassett actively supported Neumann for reelection, attending campaign meetings, waving signs on street corners, wearing Neumann T-shirts. "Having worked with him, I'd seen the decisions he made and how he dealt with problems," Bassett explains. "I knew his record, experience, education. I was fairly familiar with the records and education of people running against him. To me, it was an easy choice."
Neumann supporters were "downcast" the day after the election in November 2000, he recalls. Bieluch chose Capt. Jack Maxwell to head the transition team. "I thought that the new sheriff could make my life miserable, but he can't fire me, not without cause," Bassett recalls. "I figured even under a new sheriff, I'd do my job and be supportive of whatever decisions he makes."
Bassett's assumption, however, was quickly challenged when he learned that the new administration planned to demote seven lieutenants -- Christopher Calloway, James Durr, Edward Jablonski, Thomas Neighbors, Rob Hawkins, Rolando Silva, and Ken Thomas. All but Ken Thomas had openly supported Neumann during the campaign. Bassett reviewed the state law and internal policies regarding demotions, concluded that demoting the seven was inadvisable, and wrote up a memo on December 13 for his superiors outlining the reasons. "I wrote, 'Here's what I see as potential problems for the agency,'" Bassett explains. "It wasn't really written to protect the lieutenants. I was concerned this would lead to litigation. I still considered myself a long-time employee and thought this might be litigation I might have to defend." Indeed, the seven filed a lawsuit in federal court in February 2001, claiming that the demotions were without cause and violated their free-speech rights. A federal judge dismissed the case in September 2001, ruling that sheriffs can fire employees for political reasons. The case is pending appeal in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The plaintiffs' attorney, Susan Dolin, declined to discuss the case.
Several days after submitting the memo, Bassett was summoned to the sheriff's office, where he was told he would not be "reappointed." Without apparent bitterness, Bassett now chuckles about the word choice. "I said, 'That's fine, because I wasn't appointed in the first place. I was hired.'" Bassett maintained that under the state's Career Service Act, he could be terminated only for cause; the new administration claimed he was a political appointee. Along with Bassett, the sheriff fired four others: Paul Miller, department spokesman; Mike Wright, assistant director of uniform services; Frank DeMario, chief of internal affairs; and Daniel McBride, head of training. The five men filed suit in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, claiming they were illegally terminated.
These dismissals were among the most visible, but other personnel changes baffled the inner circle. Ken Eggleston says Maxwell's appointment to lead the transition was a shock to him. "He wasn't even involved in the campaign," he says. Friedkin recalls with dismay Bieluch's other plans for Maxwell. "Essentially 24 hours after the election, I got a phone call from someone who said, 'You need to get hold of Bieluch, because he's going to double-cross Ken,'" Friedkin says. Bieluch planned to make Maxwell his permanent second in command by resurrecting the position of undersheriff, which Neumann had eliminated. The move was a stunning about-face because Eggleston had been promised the job. Incredulous, Friedkin called the sheriff and asked why. Recalls Friedkin: "[Bieluch] said, 'Well, I don't know. [Eggleston is] a young kid. I don't know if he's ready. The other guy's got more experience.'" Friedkin pressed him, saying, "A deal is a deal." Others joined Friedkin, and Bieluch relented. Eggleston became undersheriff at a starting salary of $112,332 -- more than twice what he had earned as a sergeant a year before.
Maxwell, however, had managed to make some trouble during his brief stint in power, according to an internal affairs investigation and civil lawsuit filed against him by five high-ranking officers. Maxwell had apparently chafed under the leadership of the previous sheriff and had branded certain officers "Neumannites." According to the civil complaint, a day after Bieluch was elected, Maxwell told Capt. Alfred Musco, "All you Newmannite [sic] cock-suckers will pay for the three and a half years of shit I had to eat. You're looking at the Under Sheriff." Maxwell was obsessed with keeping certain officers from talking directly to Bieluch. In one instance, the complaint states, Maxwell told William Kenny, a manager in the internal affairs department, "There is a chain of command. Any motherfucker that goes around me, I'll cut their motherfucking legs off."
The internal affairs investigation in May 2001 concluded that Maxwell had harassed and intimidated personnel. No disciplinary action was taken against him, however; he took family medical leave until he retired in August 2001. The civil suit against him is still pending.
"He was Bieluch's buddy, and he let him off the hook with early retirement," Friedkin claims.
Bassett questions the wisdom of the sweeping changes. "As an employment lawyer, I would not have advised them to take dozens of actions they took at the beginning of the administration based on principles of employment law," he says. "Frankly, if you want to revamp the sheriff's office in a new image, there are ways [Bieluch] could do that legally."