Bedford sheriff settles suit

JOHNSTOWN – The Bedford County Sheriff and two of his deputies, fired immediately after the 2011 election, have settled a federal lawsuit in which the deputies claimed they lost their jobs because they opposed the sheriff for re-election.

The deputies, Charles E. Stuby, who opposed the sheriff, Charwin Reichelderfer, in his bid for another term, and Lukas J. Berkey, who campaigned for Stuby, filed a civil rights lawsuit on Feb. 24, 2012, in which they contended they were discharged for their political activity and not for poor performance on the job.

They filed the lawsuit against Reichelderfer and Bedford County.

Reichelderfer answered that the deputies were let go on Nov. 10, 2011, two days after the election, for “excessive violations” of the Sheriff’s Department Operations Manual and Bedford County’s Employee Handbook.

“They were not terminated during the election in order to ensure fairness for both candidates for sheriff,” according to a pretrial statement from Altoona attorney Mary Lou Maierhofer, who represented the sheriff and the county.

U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson set a trial date for March 24 but stated that mediation efforts could continue at the request of both side.

Earlier this month a settlement appeared to be forthcoming but wasn’t concluded until Tuesday.

Like many civil court cases, neither side would reveal what the settlement entailed.

Maierhofer relayed through a secretary that she would have no comment.

Cordes would only say the case “was resolved to everybody’s satisfaction.”

In their lawsuit, the deputies were asking for a federal court order barring discrimination and retaliation against individuals who engage their First Amendment rights.

They asked to be reinstated in their former jobs and claimed about $83,000 in lost wages and benefits.

They also wanted punitive damages as well as their attorney fees paid by the county.

Neither attorney had any comment on those demands, and there was no word on whether the two veteran sheriff’s deputies would be placed back on the payroll.

Reichelderfer said he was consulted about the settlement but didn’t know specifically what was in it.

“I was looking forward to my day in court,” he said Tuesday afternoon, but he said the ultimate decision on the specifics of the settlement rested with the insurance company.

The sheriff said that being sued was “not fun.”

The Bedford Department has 15 deputies, including four or five who are part-time, said Reichelderfer, a former police officer and police chief.

Stuby, with 12 years service, and Berkey, who had nine years with the department, allegedly were the only Democrats in the office, according to the legal papers.

Because the trial date was near, both sides filed pretrial statements with the federal court.

Reichelderfer said the two were fired for “improper conduct” or “unbecoming conduct.”

People complained, Reichelderfer argued, Stuby and Berkey, in uniform and with a county vehicle, were “placing Stuby election signs.”

The two went to a popular Bedford car dealership, Thomas Chevrolet, in uniform and in a marked car, for Berkey to look at a new car. Stuby denied he was present.

Stuby gave statements to the local newspaper concerning the budget for the Sheriff’s Department, and Reichelderfer stated there were inaccuracies in the budget figures.

It was charged Stuby did not follow office policies and procedures, once leaving a door to the sheriff’s office open, causing a potential security risk.

Many other instances were cited in Reichelderfer’s pretrial statement.

Berkey and Stuby said many of the reasons for termination cited during the preparation for the trial were not listed in their termination letters.

They contended the sheriff “believed running for office, in and of itself, violated a prohibition in office procedures against ‘seeking publicity.'”

They denied showing campaign signs in the back of a marked car to a resident.

The Thomas Chevrolet visit occurred when Berkey, on a lunch break, went there to ask about a vehicle and then went back to work, a visit that took fewer than five minutes.

They denied soliciting votes from prisoners, another contention from the Reichelderfer side.