TALLAHASSEE -- An ongoing, six-year-old legal saga involving dismissed Okaloosa Sheriff's Officers Rick Hord, Jon Bush and John Lee has taken another turn.
On Oct. 14, the First District Court of Appeals affirmed the 2015 Okaloosa Circuit Court decision to revive the sheriff's office’s controversial personnel standards and review board that had been adjudicating the firings of the three officers in 2010 until the state legislature in 2011 repealed the 30-year-old law that had created the standards and review board.
The case developed after the election of a new Okaloosa sheriff in 2010. Sheriff Larry Ashley assumed office following the arrest of former Sheriff Charlie Morris by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2009 for allegedly operating a kick-back scheme with five other deputies that purportedly bilked taxpayers of money.
According to the plaintiffs, Ashley told the three men to avoid a November 2010 ceremony for the officers to take their oath of office. The following day, they were fired. After a public outcry, Ashley rehired the men, but only on the condition that they accept lower rank and reduced pay.
The three deputies hired an attorney and sued the sheriff’s office for allegedly wrongful dismissal motivated by political revenge, because Hord, Bush and Lee did not vote for Ashley. Attorney R.W. Evans, who represents Ashley, told the Florida Record that “it has been the sheriff’s position all along that the dismissal of the three officers was not due to political allegiances."
The plaintiffs also alleged that they had produced evidence showing that Ashley's past actions made him unfit to be sheriff. The allegations were then determined by Ashley to be under the jurisdiction of the personnel and standards review board, largely unused since the mid-1990s.
The court’s decision to revive the five-member board killed by the legislature had to overcome an initial hiccup. Since 2015, one member had resigned from the board and one had died. The law allowed Ashley and his office to choose five new members.
Hord, Bush and Lee’s attorney, Erick Mead, told the NWF Daily News that the court “had no authority to reconstruct a repealed entity.” Mead stated that the resurrection of the board for the specific purpose of overseeing his client’s case will be prone to abuse.
“Consequently, (the rights of my clients) must be vindicated in court and not in front of the board,” Mead told NWF Daily News. “They want their day in court.”
Evans told the Florida Record that the board was revived afterward.
"The board was reconstituted to hear the appeal of the plaintiffs” after the 1st District Court rejected Mead’s argument," he said.
Mead has said that he and his clients must regroup and consider their options. Evans said he wasn't sure what the next step would be regarding the plaintiffs seeking additional litigation avenues.
"I just don’t know," Evans said.