Suspended sergeant, deputy returning to work this week
A sergeant and a deputy in the Leelanau County Sheriff’s Department were returning to work Tuesday after having been suspended for a week by Sheriff Mike Oltersdorf for what the sheriff termed “personal” reasons rather than “public safety” reasons.
Sgt. Jim Kiessel and Deputy Mike Bankey were suspended from duty for 40 hours following a disciplinary hearing on Dec. 16. Oltersdorf had accused the two of making “false, public accusations of unlawful conduct by the Leelanau County Sheriff.”
In union grievances filed shortly after their suspensions, Kiessel and Bankey indicated that they had been “talked to by the sheriff and undersheriff” about a letter they “allegedly co-authored” on June 28 that subsequently appeared in a regional daily newspaper.
Earlier in the year, Kiessel and another sergeant, Mike Lamb, had filed a complaint with the FBI alleging that the sheriff, undersheriff and jail administrator were “wire-tapping” and illegally eavesdropping on employees’ “private” phone conversations on government phone lines in the county Law Enforcement Center. The Michigan State Police conducted an investigation and determined that the sheriff had broken no laws; and that employees should have no expectation of privacy when using phones designated “for official use only.”
On June 27, Kiessel, Bankey and their union business agent, Pat Spidell, sat down with an Enterprise reporter for an exclusive interview about the subject that appeared on Page One in the newspaper’s July 3 edition. During the interview, all three stressed that their concerns about the sheriff were “not about politics,” but, rather, about whether Sheriff’s Office employees were being treated fairly.
At the time of the June interview, Oltersdorf was facing an Aug. 5 Primary Election challenge from a sitting county commissioner, Mark Walter. Oltersdorf beat Walter with nearly 63 percent of the vote for the Republican nomination for reelection as sheriff. He ran virtually unopposed in the Nov. 4 General Election, easily defeating a write-in candidate who earned less than one-percent of the vote.
Kiessel and Bankey are no longer listed as local union representatives. A Command Officers Association of Michigan (COAM) union grievance filed on behalf of Kiessel was signed by Lamb. A Police Officers Association of Michigan (POAM) union grievance filed on behalf of Bankey was signed by Deputy Duane Wright. The business agent for both unions, Spidell, did not return a reporter’s phone call on deadline for this week’s newspaper.
Undersheriff Scott Wooters quoted from a letter that Oltersdorf had sent to Kiessel and Bankey in connection with their disciplinary proceeding: “While you have a right to express your opinions on matters of public concern,” Oltersdorf wrote, “you do not have the right to make false, public accusations of unlawful conduct by the Leelanau County sheriff. Such reckless disregard for the truth cannot be tolerated, particularly by a law enforcement officer. Therefore, severe discipline is warranted.”
The sheriff ordered Kiessel and Bankey to “surrender their departmental identification, door key card, firearms, and vehicles. They will have no law enforcement authority during the suspension. Nor will they have access to the employee areas of the Law Enforcement Center or Jail,” the sheriff wrote. The two were also barred from appearing at a departmental swearing-in ceremony and meeting held Monday morning.
Kiessel and Bankey were suspended from work without pay for the normal 40-hour work week, with no overtime authorized. Kiessel was eligible to return to work at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 23; and Bankey was eligible to return to work at 2:30 p.m. the same day.
Union grievances filed by the two officers assert that their suspensions were administered “without just cause.” They demanded that the suspensions be rescinded, and they be “made whole” including receiving the pay and other benefits they lost during the one-week suspension.
Asked why it took Oltersdorf until this month to discipline the two officers for actions they took in June, Wooters responded that the timing of the suspension was “due to circumstances beyond our control that will probably come out in arbitration.”
Wooters added that the suspensions did not require any other officers to receive overtime pay or result in any substantial changes in shift assignments.
The department already has one more deputy than the sheriff wants on his staff – Bruce Beeker. Oltersdorf fired Beeker in 2006 for starting a relationship with a suspect in a domestic violence case, but the deputy won his job back last year through union arbitration.
The sheriff has relegated Beeker to a desk job with no law enforcement authority, however – and Beeker’s status is a continuing source of friction in the department, according to a department employee who asked not to be named.