In Split Decision, Sheriff’s Sergeant Fired 2 Years Ago Ordered Reinstated, With 9 Months’ Back Pay
FlaglerLive | May 27, 2015
Two year ago, Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre fired Sgt. Chris Ragazzo, a nine-year veteran of the agency, after a Florida Department of Law Enforcement inquiry and a sheriff’s internal affairs investigation showed he’d been accessing official databases to conduct unauthorized searches on certain individuals.
Those included Manfre himself, soon after he was elected, along with members of his transition team, and people associated with Ragazzo’s ex-wife.
Less than a year later, the FDLE’s the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission found no probable cause to pursue disciplinary action against Ragazzo. The sergeant and the Florida Coastal Police Benevolent Association, the union representing Ragazzo, claimed Manfre lacked “just cause” to fire him under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. They claimed Manfre fired Ragazzo in part because of Manfre’s “animus” toward the union, and Ragazzo’s union activities. Ragazzo and the union contested the decision through an arbitration hearing. An arbitrator’s decision, once reached, cannot be appealed.
Today (May 27), William J. Mc Ginnis, Jr., the arbitrator, ruled in a split decision that while there was no credible evidence that Manfre took reprisals against Ragazzo over his union activities, the firing was improper. Without disputing the fact that Ragazzo acted improperly and violated policies, the arbitrator found Manfre denied Ragazzo due process, firing him before applying more measured, more progressive disciplinary steps in line with the alleged offenses—and with Ragazzo’s exemplary record until that time.
The arbitrator ordered Ragazzo, his seniority and benefits reinstated by June 1. But Ragazzo is to get only 180 days’ back pay (as opposed to two years’ worth), without overtime. (One hundred and eighty working days works out to 36 weeks, or roughly nine months’ pay.)
The arbitration hearing, McGinnis wrote in his ruling, “convinced me that there were errors on both sides in this matter.”
The sheriff’s errors included a sloppy initial firing of Ragazzo, which required the sergeant to be reinstated for a few weeks and placed on administrative leave until he had time to review the decision, and be fired again. “The initial determination by [Manfre] to terminate [Ragazzo] without a hearing thus chill[ed] the environment by judging the guilt of the grievant without following due process and violating this aspect of just cause,” McGinnis wrote.
The ruling is almost certain to lend some credence to criticism Manfre sustained, almost immediately after he took office, for being too quick on the draw when it came to firings and demotions, which have coursed through the agency in bursts through his two and a half years.
But Mc Ginnis did not dispute that the sheriff’s rules and policies were clear, that Ragazzo violated them and acted improperly by accessing the databases for his personal use, and that “an experienced Sergeant functioning as a supervisor can reasonably be expected to properly utilize such law enforcement tools.” That amounted to conduct unbecoming an employee, the ruling found. But while Ragazzo’s “conduct required a penalty more severe than that of a one day suspension,” an outright firing was disproportionate.
In essence, the arbitrator administered an implicit punishment by restoring Ragazzo’s back-pay only by half.
Jim Trioano, the sheriff’s director of operational support and the agency’s chief spokesman, had not read the arbitrator’s decision when initially contacted this evening, but in a subsequent interview had received it from Manfre and provided a statement.
“We strongly disagree with the arbitrator’s outrageous decision in this case,” Troiano said, citing more than 50 violations of the FDLE and motor vehicle department’s databases. “These gross violations undermine the heart of the public’s trust and confidence in its law enforcement officers when they utilize protected databases for personal use.” He added: “We have a responsibility to our law enforcement partners to not violate the provisions of the user agreement for these systems. Violations can result in our agency’s loss of the use of the system, civil fines, and a requirement for the sheriff’s office to notify each person who had their personal information inappropriately utilized by a law enforcement officer.”
Mike Scudiero, the union’s chief representative, could not be reached Wednesday evening.
The sheriff, according to the arbitrator’s decision, had contended that the databases Ragazzo accessed “were designated for law enforcement use and purposes only. The personal use of the databases by [Ragazzo] was improper and a violation of several policies,” and that Ragazzo had almost a decade on the job, “and he was wholly familiar with employer policies relevant to the issues that arose during the internal investigation.” The sheriff argued that his decision was fair, proven, and in proportion to the offense.
The union countered that, aside from Manfre “stacking” charges against Ragazzo, and using hearsay witnesses against him, “The only independent panel to look at the allegations was the Florida Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission,” the arbitrator’s report states. “The Commission voted unanimously to find no probable Cause for any misuse of official position” by Ragazzo.
And it argued that the penalty was out of proportion with the alleged offense, given that “a much lesser penalty was given for similar conduct” in other cases. Ragazzo, it added, had no prior disciplinary issues—and had an “exemplary” record—a fact not taken in consideration when he was fired. Nor did the sheriff apply any form of progressive discipline. Essentially, the union argued, he went straight to termination, which the union sees as a violation of due process under the terms of the bargaining agreement.
The union also noted that deputies were to be trained on the proper use of the databases in question, and had not received that training.
The hearing was held on April 18. The split decision means the sheriff and the PBA must split the cost of the arbitration process.
Troiano, the sheriff’s spokesman, said the agency will abide by the arbitrator’s ruling, but absent a more thorough review of the decision, he said he could not address how Ragazzo’s return—in what capacities, with what supervisory responsibilities—would be handled.