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Controversies Still Swirling Around Corrections Officers' Suspensions
The attorney general’s office is expected to file a motion on Friday requesting that the Personnel Appeals Board rehear a case involving two state prison guards. The two have been suspended for months without pay and benefits. The Personnel Appeals Board has called the suspensions both unjust and wrong. The case has become so controversial that it’s rising to the governor’s office.
NHPR’s Elaine Grant has the story.
The facts in the cases of the two New Hampshire State Prison corrections officers are quite different.
Jeffrey Bettez, a guard on the maximum security unit, was suspended on January 6th of this year for allegedly assaulting an inmate last November.
He denies the allegations.
Almost nine months later, the state has filed no charges against him, yet he remains suspended without pay and benefits.
Mark Jordan is the president of the local chapter of the corrections officer’s union.
He was suspended without pay or benefits on March 11th for allegedly assaulting another guard.
Four months later, in July – days after Jordan filed a civil suit against Corrections -- the state charged him with simple assault, a misdemeanor.
He also denies the allegations.
Both men are outraged.
“By suspending people, without giving the ability to know their accuser, to defend themselves in any way, and to put them out involuntarily suspended without pay and benefits, no means to raise their family, their children or pay their bills, is a travesty of justice.”
On July 28, the Personnel Appeals Board, which hears disputes between state staffers and employers, agreed.
The PAB called the suspensions "tantamount to terminations without the benefit of due process."
The board ordered Corrections to reinstate the men or to leave them suspended but with pay.
They also ordered the department to pay them retroactively to 45 days after their suspensions began.
And they ordered Corrections to restore their benefits immediately.
Instead, Corrections formally continued both unpaid suspensions.
So last week, the P-A-B gave the department until August 16th to explain why.
The P-A-B refused to comment on the case.
So did Department of Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn.
Union lawyer Peter Perroni says Corrections’ refusal to follow the PAB’s orders has broad implications.
Attorney Peter Perroni: “The idea that somehow the state can just decide it’s just not gonna obey a lawful order of a board in the face of a statute that says they have to, to me is very troubling.”
But assistant attorney general LynMarie Cusack insists that the unpaid suspensions are called for.
Assistant Attorney General LynMarie Cusack: “I would suggest that any agency in the state that had a criminal allegation against an employee has the authority under the personnel rules to suspend that individual pending the outcome of the criminal investigation and the arraignment or prosecution.”
And therein lies one of the biggest controversies in these cases – just how long should these criminal investigations take?
Here’s what the P-A-B had to say.
“The decision to leave these employees indefinitely suspended without pay because the State Major Crimes Unit was unable, for whatever reason, to complete the investigation is simply unjust.”
Union representatives argue that the investigations are taking too long.
Assistant Attorney General LynnMarie Cusack demurs:
“While one person may think something should happen fast, whether it’s 30, 60, 90, 120 days that may be the time that it takes to do a reasonable and adequate job…You’re saying why is it taking so long, we’re saying it may be reasonable.”
Mark Jordan argues that politics are driving his case.
He says he’s being targeted because, as a union steward, he’s accused Corrections of allowing an increasing level of violence to occur in the state prisons.
Cusack says that’s not so.
Assistant Attorney General LynMarie Cusack: “The Department of Corrections would suspend any individual that had committed a crime that was being investigated.”
Cusack says the department is exploring how to restore the two officers’ benefits immediately, per the appeals board’s orders.
Mark Jordan is scheduled for an arraignment on August 20.
Union representatives have requested a meeting with Governor Lynch to discuss the suspensions.
Governor Lynch plans to meet with them soon to discuss these cases and other union business.
For NHPR News, I’m Elaine Grant.