Days after the Broward County deputies' union president was suspended after being critical of the sheriff's response to the new coronavirus, his attorneys are calling his suspension "illegal and immoral."
Jeff Bell, the president of the 1,400-member Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, was suspended Friday with pay.
“It's illegal. It's immoral and a violation of all laws,” said one of Bell's attorneys, Eric Schwartzreich.
Union representatives on Monday said they plan to hold a no-confidence vote on Sheriff Gregory Tony. Members have until next Monday to cast their votes.
Schwartzreich and Bell’s other lawyer Michael Finesilver said that Bell has a duty as the union president to voice his opinion.
"In this time, when we are in the middle of a pandemic, what the sheriff did was to stifle free speech, violate federal whistleblowing laws, state whistleblowing laws, unfair labor practices and stoop a union president from being able to communicate," Schwartzreich said.
The animosity between Tony and the union president grew Tuesday when Bell penned a column blasting Tony in the South Florida Sun Sentinel. It came four days after the death of Deputy Shannon Bennett, 39, and after three dozen Broward deputies and other employees had tested positive for COVID-19. Bell accused the sheriff for allegedly not having enough personal protective gear for deputies, first responders and those working in the Broward County Jail system.
BSO opened an internal affairs investigation and listed lying and conduct unbecoming as two of the five allegations against Bell.
“For any rogue employee to come off and present these comments, that we have failed this community and failed these men and women we are leading, is despicable," Tony said in a briefing on Tuesday.
The sheriff said that more than 25,000 high-quality masks and more than 40,000 surgical masks had already been given out when Bell made his statements saying deputies were telling him they didn’t have what they need.
"He’s not a rogue employee," Schwartzreich said. "He’s a union president whose job is to advocate for his members—first responders. He’s not rogue, he’s doing his job. The action that was rogue was suspending a union president. That’s the only thing that’s rogue here."
Schwartzreich said the suspension was also a way to muzzle Bell during a year where Tony is seeking reelection.
“Its an election year," he said. "The sheriff started an administrative action that's taken six months and now time is tolled and there's going to be an election."
The sheriff last week said that it was Bell who was spending time that appeared to deal more with politics than actual police work.
"Deputy Bell is not a victim of abuse of powers, nor was his suspension a matter of retaliation," Tony said in a statement on Monday. "He is a deputy of the Broward Sheriff’s Office and thereby subject to comply with all agency policy. All BSO employees are accountable for their actions, regardless of any ancillary role or title they may possess."
Schwartzreich said if there is no quick resolution, they plan to go to court.
“We are willing to sit down," he said. "We are willing to talk to the sheriff, but Jeff Bell needs to have his job back."