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Sheriff’s Sergeant Calls His Firing Fishy

LAKEPORT, Calif. (CN) - A sheriff's sergeant says he was fired for truthfully testifying that he was ordered not to give a standard alcohol test to an off-duty police commander who crashed a speedboat into a sailboat, killing a woman.

James Beland sued Lake County in Lake County Superior Court.

Beland also claims that when a hearing officer found he had been fired without cause, the Board of Supervisors met in special session and changed the cause of his firing.

In his 13-page complaint, Beland says he'd worked for the Lake County Sheriff's Office since 2000, "had a prior military background and was a federal police officer for the U.S. Protective Services and a civilian police officer on a military base," and that his "evaluations as a deputy were largely spotless."

Two months after he was promoted to sergeant, in 2006, Beland says, he helped handle a boating accident that killed a 51-year-old woman.

According to the complaint, a 385-horsepower, 24-foot speedboat crashed into the back of a sailboat on the "almost moonless night" of April 29, 2006.

"A commander of the Lake County Sheriff's Department, Russell Perdock (herein 'Perdock') was driving the speedboat," the complaint states. "The collision resulted in the death of a 51-year-old woman. The pilot of the sailboat was Bismark Dinius. He was later acquitted of charges of boating under the influence and manslaughter.

"On scene, plaintiff spoke to Sergeant Dennis Ostini and Sergeant Michael Morshed (herein 'Morshed') and told them that he had a preliminary alcohol screening device (PAS) in his vehicle. A PAS is an immediate alcohol screening sensor that determines a person's alcohol content in their blood. In serious crimes, it is used as a baseline investigative tool to determine if there is ANY alcohol in the driver's system. [Emphasis in complaint.]

"Plaintiff asked if Ostini and Morshed wanted to use it. Ostini, as primary investigator, said, 'No, we're not. We're going to go ahead and do a blood draw.' At the time, plaintiff felt he was ordered not to administer the PAS test even though it was standard operating procedure to administer such a test in incidents of driving under the influence. Plaintiff had just been promoted to sergeant and accepted Ostini's direction.

"Since the date of the boating accident (4/29/06), plaintiff was subjected to nineteen different job related disciplines. Some of the disciplines were for aiding other officers, while still others covered large periods of time (1½ years), looking for things to discipline plaintiff about and silence him.

"For example, on May 18, 2008, Deputy District Attorney Langan spoke to plaintiff in preparation for the preliminary hearing of May 22, 2008. At that interview, plaintiff appropriately told Langan about his concern about being ordered not to give the PAS test to Perdock. Deputy District Attorney Langan attempted to 'shape' Beland's testimony such that Beland would testify that the 'order' not to give the PAS test to Perdock was really a 'discussion.'

"At the preliminary hearing, plaintiff testified to both his impression of the 'order' or 'discussion.' Thereafter, plaintiff was disciplined for being untruthful.

"Within an hour of his testimony, plaintiff was removed from his position as the Gang Task Force Supervisor.

"Thereafter, plaintiff was terminated from employment effective Dec. 3, 2008."

Beland says that after eight days of testimony, an administrative hearing officer found he had been fired without cause.

Then, according to the complaint: "Instead of accepting or rejecting the recommendations of the hearing officer in accordance with the MOU [the governing document between Lake County Deputy Sheriff's Association and the county], the Board of Supervisors held a series of closed door hearings, reviewed the evidence, was presented with legal argument by an unknown party, made findings about evidence without providing plaintiff an opportunity to address the evidence or address the legal argument made therein, and upheld the termination on completely different grounds from which he was charged (loss of license v. untruthfulness)." (Parentheses in complaint.)

Beland seeks reinstatement, lost wages, costs, and punitive damages for wrongful termination, retaliation, violation of due process, and violations of administrative procedure.

He is represented by Scott Lewis with Perry, Johnson, Anderson, Miller & Moskowitz, of Santa Rosa.

Perdock was fired after an Internal Affairs investigation of "misconduct," according to ABC7 News. The Sheriff's Department did not say why he was fired, ABC reported.

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