Walters, Juarez come before Duval Co. grievance committee

Sue Fleming, Duval County Correspondent

SAN DIEGO - Two Central South Texas Criminal Investigation Unit former employees cited political motivation as the reason for having been abruptly fired by Duval County Sheriff Santiago Barrera Jr. earlier this month.

They spoke during a grievance hearing held at the county courthouse Nov. 21

Former investigator Nicolas P. Juarez and secretary Amanda Walters separately testified on record to grievance officer Chief Deputy Bruno Valdez, that they strongly felt the terminations were completely unwarranted.

Local attorney Chuck Barrera served as advisor during the proceeding for the sheriff's department. Sheriff Barrera was not present.

The Central South Texas Criminal Investigation Unit, often referred to as the task force, is based in Benavides.

"I feel it's politically motivated and anyone in their right mind would know it," Juarez firmly said when questioned by Valdez and attorney Barrera. "I've been here approximately five years and I've never been written up, never been counseled, never been reprimanded.

"As a matter of fact, the sheriff said he'd cover my pay until funding came through - everything was fine," he added.

But just days after the sheriff heard the commander of the task force, Romeo R. Ramirez, was going to run for sheriff in the upcoming election, Juarez said he was suddenly notified he had been fired.

Task force Assistant Commander Ronald Smithwick, who was instructed by the sheriff to inform Juarez of his immediate termination, verbally did so on Nov. 2, Juarez said.

In a formal grievance letter dated Nov. 8, to the sheriff, Juarez wrote in part, "I feel that this termination was a political means made by you to hurt Cmdr. Romeo Ramirez since he has decided to run for sheriff of Duval County. To this day I have not been given a reason of my termination from you or your chief deputy, only a message relayed to me from the assistant commander of the task force, that I was rude to a sheriff's dispatcher three and a half months ago. To be terminated such a long time after the alleged incident without ever being disciplined, in my opinion is not right, nor do I feel is the real reasons behind this termination."

When questioned by attorney Barrera of the incident involving a dispatcher, Juarez said it was a minor incident that took place in August.

Juarez said during the time, he was talking to L.A.P.D. investigators on a cell phone and asked the dispatcher for a phone number.

"I was standing on one side of the glassed window and she was on the other side - it's hard to hear each other from there," he said.

He said the dispatcher was telling him the number was 'maybe 70l such and such' or 'maybe 701 such and such.'

"I'm on the phone with L.A.P.D." he said he told her, "'I don't need a 'maybe,' I need the phone number,' and that is the end of all I said."

She then went downstairs to find the right number, he said.

Others who were in the office overheard Juarez's conversation and went to the sheriff accusing him of being rude to the dispatcher, he said, of throwing his weight around.

"I didn't use vulgarity, I didn't yell at her - it wasn't anything," Juarez stressed.

After discussing the situation with Sheriff Barrera with witnesses present, the matter was totally forgotten, he said.

"The dispatcher herself never even complained about the incident," he said. "It wasn't anything and that was four months ago."

In concluding testimony, when asked by attorney Barrera, Juarez said he would be satisfied to be reinstated only so that he can properly resign.

"I don't want to work here again but I don't want termination on my record," he said.

After listening to testimony, attorney Barrera said his recommendation to the sheriff's department is that Juarez be reinstated with two weeks paid vacation.

Cmdr. Ramirez afterward asked to explain the funding process of the task force.

"Obligation has never been on the sheriff's office," he said.

"Funding is granted by the state."

The county of Duval is the applicant, he said.

Funds cover an 18-month period from March 1, 2006 through Oct. 1, 2007. Any expense paid by the sheriff's department is reimbursed after grants are obtained, which does take some time to receive, Ramirez said.

Afterward, Walters testified.

She said on record she had been employed as secretary of the task force since Nov. 1, 2006 through the sheriff's office.

"I have a clean record," she said. "I've always done a good job."

Attorney Barrera asked Walters if she had told anyone who she was going to vote for.

"No, I haven't. It's only my business who I'm going to vote for," she said. "I have very little contact with anyone at the sheriff's office."

In a formal grievance letter dated Nov. 15, 2007, Walters reminded the sheriff he had confidently stated to her on Oct. 1 when she met with him to discuss continuing employment as task force secretary that his department would support her salary, including a pay increase and insurance benefits for the fiscal year 2007 through 2008.

"I had been a good employee and you recognized and acknowledged that by rewarding me with a pay increase," she wrote.

Walters said her salary was increased by 23 percent.

"I have yet to receive formal notice of my termination and would appreciate the fortitude for you to do so," Walters wrote.

Walters said on Nov. 13 she was told by Smithwick per the sheriff's instructions that she was terminated effective as of Nov. 14.

"I am fully aware Duval County is an 'at-will' employer and that a reason is not necessary for termination; however, I feel my termination is politically motivated to the current situation regarding your possible re-election," the letter stated.

During testimony, Walters said she has yet to hear from the sheriff as for the reason of her termination.

"However, he submitted a request for change of status of employee for the reason he stated that the task force had eliminated the position of secretary on the grant," she said, "it was never on it."

Walters said once the commander announced his candidacy for sheriff, things became chaotic.

"Word got around the sheriff wanted to terminate the task force," she said. "So political motivation seems like it's the only thing that makes sense."

When asked by attorney Barrera what she wanted in order to be satisfied, Walters said she wanted to be reinstated as secretary of the force task.

"I want my job back. I enjoyed it," she said.

After hearing the testimony, Barrera said he was going to make the recommendation to the sheriff's department that Walters be reinstated.

In compliance to county policy, Valdez said he would give Juarez and Walters a decision regarding their requests within 10 days.

Valdez and Walters are under commission of the Duval County Sheriff's Department.

Cmdr. Ramirez, Assistant Comdr. Smithwick and agent O.J. Esinoza of the task force are commissioned under the Live Oak Sheriff's Department.