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Sheriff Burns stands his ground

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Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns says he has taken all the correct steps in addressing a spate of bad behavior that has brought state investigations, criminal charges and multimillion-dollar lawsuits against county employees and the county itself.

The Board of Legislators has agreed to allow the sheriff time to sort out these matters internally. Legislators, however, are growing anxious about the amount of time it is taking.

Though the board has no direct control over the sheriff, an elected official, it exerts control over his budget. And it can use that influence to sway his actions.

Some legislators have expressed a desire to see an independent investigation.

It’s a prospect Mr. Burns says he welcomes.

“If they want to look at everything, that’s fine. It’s not a problem,” Mr. Burns said.

He said allegations against Undersheriff Andrew R. Neff, accused of harassing a convicted felon by text message, and corrections officer Mark H. Kellogg, accused of assault in an off-duty bar fight, already are being investigated by state police.

“I think I have done whatever I could to go with outside agencies to investigate these complaints,” Mr. Burns said.

The sheriff said he wanted to bring a harsher charge against Deputy Adam B. Hallett but was advised by District Attorney Cindy F. Intschert that an open alcoholic beverage container was the only one he could pursue. Mr. Hallett was found asleep in his vehicle off County Route 72 in the town of Henderson several hours after he went off duty Dec. 1.

Proper law-enforcement protocol was not followed in that incident, which meant evidence necessary to substantiate a more serious penalty was not admissible in court, the sheriff said.

Because of this negligence, Deputy Matthew A. Vaughn, who was the first to respond to the incident involving Deputy Hallett, is facing departmental disciplinary charges for failing to take appropriate action at the scene.

Mr. Neff, who was initially expected to announce his retirement Thursday, was suspended with pay beginning Oct. 25. Mr. Burns said Thursday evening he had not yet heard anything about Mr. Neff’s retirement.

“He served the county for 25 years and he did a good job. I wouldn’t want anything to hurt him in terms of benefits,” Mr. Burns said. He said he wanted Mr. Neff to “retire with his dignity.”

He said he expected Mr. Neff to make the announcement shortly, either on Friday or Monday.

Mr. Neff’s retirement will not stop the state’s investigation, which Sheriff Burns indicated would likely result in a grand jury investigation.

Desiring a “fresh look,” Sheriff Burns said he was looking for someone from outside the department to replace Mr. Neff.

“I’d like to see somebody come in from the outside to give me a hand,” he said.

Mr. Burns confirmed an incident in which a nurse caring for inmates at the county jail illegally accessed confidential medical records had been reported to the state Education Department.

The nurse resigned from the department immediately after being confronted about the incident Jan. 8.

“We’ve tried to run the best place we could. Anytime anything has happened, we responded immediately,” Mr. Burns said. “We’re not covering anything up at all. We’ve done a good job doing what we can do under Civil Service Laws and unions and arbitration.”

The sheriff cited two incidents in which the department’s integrity has prevailed over criminal or negligent activity.

In 2005, Sheriff Burns said, he did not hesitate to arrest Detective Gregory A. Bush, who was charged with fourth-degree grand larceny and official misconduct for allegedly stealing $800 from a drug suspect.

Mr. Bush was acquitted of those charges but underwent undisclosed departmental disciplinary proceedings in 2006. He retired from the department in 2007 after 23 years of service. Later that year, he pleaded guilty to petit larceny for the theft of groceries from Price Chopper. He was again charged with petit larceny the following day for allegedly stealing $274 worth of items from JC Penney at the Salmon Run Mall.

The second incident involves Gary W. Woodside Jr., who was convicted of criminally negligent homicide in 1989 for shooting a Fort Drum soldier while deer-jacking near the post. Mr. Woodside was exonerated of the crime in 2007 following a seven-month investigation by sheriff’s Detective Gary M. Belch.

The Sheriff’s Department has nearly 150 employees, Mr. Burns said.

“Whenever you have that amount of employees, you’re going to have problems come up and we try to deal with it as best we can,” he said.

In addition to the incidents involving Mr. Neff, Deputy Kellogg, Deputy Hallett, Deputy Vaughn and the corrections nurse, a $50 million lawsuit is pending against Detective Steven C. Cote for allegedly deceiving a female deputy into posing nude for photographs meant to be used as part of an online pedophilia investigation.

Also, Deputy James J. Randall served a 60-day suspension starting in August for having a relationship with a convicted felon.

Sheriff Burns said if an external investigation were to happen, he did not know who would conduct it or whether investigators would look at individual incidents or larger patterns of behavior.

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