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In Split Decision, Sheriff’s Sergeant Fired 2 Years Ago Ordered Reinstated, With 9 Months’ Back Pay

| May 27, 2015

chris ragazzo sheriff jim manfre

An arbitrator ruled that Sheriff Jim Manfre, seen here at a memorial ceremony earlier this month, did not act out of animus or anti-union sentiment when he fired a sergeant two years ago, but the arbitrator found the firing did not follow due process. (© FlaglerLive)

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.

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28 Responses for “In Split Decision, Sheriff’s Sergeant Fired 2 Years Ago Ordered Reinstated, With 9 Months’ Back Pay”

  1. Jeannie says:

    This is great news. I am glad the officer is to be reinstated.

  2. a tiny manatee says:

  3. RG says:

    How about this Sheriff is a joke……………………………

  4. Melissa says:

    He BROKE the law. I am confused as to why we are happy about this. Unbelievable!

    • Ray Thorne says:

      He DID NOT break the law Melissa and was fired unjustly and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and an arbitrator agree.

  5. PalmCoastresident says:

    I don’t know what Cracker Jack box Manfre got his law degree from, but this is pretty basic labor law with a collective bargaining agreement. Past practice dictates further/future discipline, unless you can show some extenuating circumstance(s) to why the discipline doesn’t fall in line with past practices.

    Furthermore, did the sherrif’s office notifity everyone he looked up as they said they should? You go making dumb claims like that in the media and you better make sure you have already done this!

    Should have had entire back pay with interest awarded…

  6. YankeeExPat says:

    I would vote for Barney Fife or Rosco P. Coltrane next election. As either would be an improvement. To paraphrase former President George W. Bush, this town suffers from “Podunkerey”!

    • Just saying says:

      New Yorks finest in charge, can’t blame the southerners on any of this.

      • biker says:

        Not NY finest… Just a wanna be wearing a costume. Just curious but exactly what do
        All those hash marks on his sleeve represent? That just goes to show how little he thinks of real law enforcement officers. Where exactly did he earn those twenty year hash marks?

    • NortonSmitty says:

      You know, I’m pretty sure when you gotta’ paraphrase Bush the Dumber, you got a losing argument going for you no matter what side of the Mason/Dixon line you claim to be from.

  7. Out with the old and new with the new says:

    When is the Ethics Office going to disclose the results of the ethics complaint filed against the Sheriff that was pulled back in November after refusing the Sheriff’s consent order?

    Maybe other officers that were fired without cause will be reinstated as well. How does this Sheriff have money in his budget to pay these expenses and put this man back on the payroll? What is Mr. Nowell being paid, and what is he doing….events as this should and could have been avoided?

  8. ronald mcdonald says:

    What a joke. And they want to allow him to keep his badge? AND basically reward him with a year paid vacation? Just as dumb as the people spending our tax money on shit that doesn’t matter. Pathetic.

  9. Footballen says:

    The article kind of reads like the Sheriff is convinced that the Sergeant actually did some heinous act that violated a law, ordinance or even a policy however I do not see a single example of any law, ordinance or even policy pointed out that he specifically broke except for the “conduct unbecoming” which is an office policy if I am not mistaken. There still is no explanation for a serious violation like that if it is to be believed that none of his actions were against the law or policy. Obviously the main governing body in a situation like misuse of Law Enforcement data base would be the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. How come they were not apprised of the situation? It would seem to me that a violation that is wagered here would be something they would be tasked to investigate.

    • Heading North says:

      Read the article! FDLE found “no cause to pursue disciplinary action against Ragazzo ” over a year ago!

    • Ray Thorne says:

      They did investigate well over a year ago and concluded that he didn’t violate anything. A ruling that should have had him reinstated then and it should never have gone as far as arbitration. A testament to the Sheriff’s temperament.

  10. NortonSmitty says:

    Ok, here is the big problem you people don’t seem to be grasping here. This is a man we granted, as a community, the power to rule over us all. He could be assured that even if he somehow happened to shoot one of us County citizens, he would be given way more than the benefit of the doubt that he was in the right. For being granted these privileges, these powers over all of us neighbors. we sort of, well, demand is really too strong a word, beg is more like it, that in return, he will at least have the decency to show at least a modicum of pretending to not rub our noses in anything that could be considered corruption or bullying, for his benefit or for what he could possibly provide for others, who may not have our best interests at heart.

    And yet, he used his position to access information, and as we have been told, Information is Power. To do what? We don’t know. Maybe he was looking up if the cute girl he pulled over today was single. Or maybe he was looking up who snitched on the Drug Kingpin to get him a new Corvette to take that girl out. We aren’t being told what his transgression was on the vast data gathering vampire squid that sucks up all we are and lays it before the feet of the Law Enforcement Community so they are able to protect us all. From the Bad Guys, dontcha’ know. They all do this kind of overlooked snooping every day. And we never would have heard of this “lapse in judgement” either except for the fact that whatever he was looking up, it obviously stepped on the Sheriffs toes.

    And this is the real problem here. The Great Defenders of this poor Officers transgression is the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. This is the equivalent of the Amalgamated International Brotherhood of Wolves dismissing the harassment complaints from the family of the dead Sheep. And as we all should be feeling more and more like the family of dead sheep in America today. The fact that when even the Sheriff tries to discipline a bad cop and can’t, it merely points out how well and truly powerless and screwed we all are. But at least we are free, huh?

    • Just saying says:

      All well and good, but also consider; maybe there was a training requirement that needed addressing. Maybe some of the information was exaggerated, maybe only one side of the story is ever really told. All stories have at least 3 sides; my side, your side and the truth. Perspective is reality but it’s not always the same perspective everyone has.

      • bruce says:

        Welcome back Chris i know you have dedicated your life to helping people out as i have seen first hand working beside you when you were on the vol F.D. with me many years ago .thank you for your continued service be safe.

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