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?

Eggleston is also critical of many of the personnel decisions made by Bieluch and Maxwell. For the record, however, Eggleston still considers Bassett to have been a Neumann political appointee. "In the first 30 days, the Bieluch administration made so many mistakes -- out-of-control promotions, transfers," he says. "There were 135 transfers, promotions, and changes in pay grade made on January 2, 2001, when the sheriff officially took over." Such massive shifting had never occurred before, he contends.

What galled Eggleston above all, however, was the promotion of the sheriff's good friend Dan Smith from corporal in the bicycle unit to major in charge of the special operations division on December 27. His annual salary jumped from $42,672 to $83,424. "When that promotion occurred, it was the first sign that we were not going to do things in a professional way," Eggleston says. "Majors control budgets of $30 million to $60 million. [Bieluch] promoted someone who had never pursued any formal education, held any supervisory level, or taken any supervisory exam, or ever showed an interest in doing so. He hadn't even taken a sergeant's exam. After something like that, how do you explain that you're building a department on professional standards and ability?"

Attorneys for Bassett and the other four men tried in vain to discover the basis of Bieluch's personnel changes when they deposed him on March 12, 2001. The sheriff comes off as having virtual amnesia about decisions made just three months earlier. For example, when asked whether he'd considered firing Bassett before being elected, Bieluch responded, "It's a possibility that I had that in mind. I'm not sure." When he told the attorneys that he "probably" had come up with the idea of firing Miller, he was pressed on the qualifier. He answered, "Well, because it was probably me. It probably wasn't anybody else. I don't know. I don't remember." Bieluch had suspended the promotions policy when he took control, and the attorneys asked whether he'd shelved any other policies. "You know, I believe we have, but I don't recall which ones," he replied.

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

The lawsuit was settled January 31, 2002. Although the parties are barred from discussing the settlement, the agency clearly was trying to cut its losses. The sheriff's department paid DeMario $25,000, McBride $35,000, Miller $40,000, Wright $25,000, and Bassett $45,000. The agency paid their attorneys a total of $27,500. All except Bassett were rehired.

The working relationship between Bieluch and Eggleston smoothed somewhat after the first few months -- primarily, Eggleston maintains, because Bieluch was often away, either attending conventions or patrolling in a squad car. He contends that the sheriff never even read the budget submitted to the County Commission last year.

"What I tried to do as second in command was take his arbitrary positions and say, 'Let's try to fix it this way, that way,'" he explains. Their relationship deteriorated in August after Eggleston requested Smith's demotion. He recalls: "I walked right in and said, 'Major Smith cannot do his job. It's not his fault. He's never had training.' I suggested he be demoted to a lieutenant and put him under a strong captain to teach him his job."

Union leaders say members have had fewer complaints about Bieluch than about Neumann. "Neumann just cared what the public thought about him; I believe Bieluch cares more about what his employees think," says David Moore, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #50, which represents about 700 corrections employees in the county. "He's done things that a lot of people aren't happy about, but we have too many employees to make everybody happy." The perception exists, however, that promotions are more arbitrary now than they were under Neumann, George says of the Police Benevolent Association. "It's even more 'who you know' to get promoted than whether you're qualified," he adds.

The aftermath of 9/11 occupied much of Eggleston's time in the fall, and by November 2001, he rarely talked one-on-one with Bieluch. Democratic Party leaders, however, were very much interested in the undersheriff, whose bona fides in law enforcement made him an attractive congressional candidate for 2002 in a country with a heightened interest in security.

Regardless of Bieluch's supposed declaration in 1999 about serving only one four-year term, he seems to have had a change of heart sometime after getting elected. Friedkin contends it didn't take long. "I think Bieluch came back from one of his trips after four months and basically concluded that he'd like to be sheriff for more than four years," he says. "He had payroll remorse."

As Bieluch's intent became clear, Eggleston's interest in the congressional race waxed. As it turned out, that objective was fraught with its own hazards.

The first tremors of the quake that would lead to Eggleston's dismissal arose on February 1 of this year, when Bieluch asked the undersheriff to report to his office. They later recounted the meeting in sworn testimony given during the sheriff's office internal investigation of Eggleston's campaign activity.

"We sat down at the table," Bieluch testified. "Without making any small talk, I told him that for a long period of time, I'd lost complete trust in him and his decision-making. I had no faith in him. I asked for his immediate resignation. Needless to say, he wasn't happy with that. We talked about it a little bit. He did most of the talking. I refused to get into that type of discussion with [him], because he just won't give up. He's very strong-willed, and he has quite a gift of gab."

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