A fired former Bradley County deputy says he's only one of dozens of law enforcement officers fired or forced out by Bradley Sheriff Jim Ruth for political reasons.
Former deputy Dallas Longwith filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday claiming that Ruth fired him in January 2012 on a "ridiculous" pretext to hide the real reason: Longwith was open about plans to support state Rep. Eric Watson if he runs against Ruth next year.
"It had nothing to do with work-related stuff -- it was just to get rid of me because I had an affiliation with the man who might be the next sheriff of Bradley County," Longwith told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga, claims the firing violated Longwith's First Amendment right to free association. It names Ruth, the sheriff's office and Bradley County as defendants and seeks $1.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
Ruth declined Friday to comment on pending litigation. Bradley County Attorney Crystal Freiberg said the county hasn't seen the lawsuit but would turn it over to its liability insurer to defend.
Longwith, who was a court officer for Chancellor Jerri Bryant, was fired in January 2012 for conduct unbecoming an officer. The sheriff's staff said there'd been "false complaints" filed by a "convicted felon" of Longwith mowing his yard in his underwear, though the former deputy said he was wearing cotton-flannel shorts in a UT orange and white plaid.
"The Plaintiff asserts that this was a subterfuge to rid the Department of a potential Eric Watson supporter just as Sheriff Ruth ... systematically demoted, cut pay and/or changed the shifts of sheriff's deputies who had openly supported" the Democratic candidate, Steve Lawson, the suit states.
The suit states that the Bradley County mayor and commissioners "are well aware of this practice and approve of it by failing to bring it to an end." Commissioners discussed but did not enact civil service protections for deputies after Ruth's election, according to the lawsuit.
The suit also claims that Watson, then a sheriff's office captain and fellow Republican, "was given the choice of either being fired or resigning voluntarily. He chose to resign in the face of threats of termination. ... (t)he plaintiff would assert that he was effectively terminated to eliminate a potential political rival."
In an interview, Watson said that when Ruth took over in 2010, "there was a bunch of changes and demotions and degrades in pay and stuff that went on that I didn't go along with at all. I was very vocal about that."
He added, "There were dozens of people affected by pay cuts and demotions when Jim Ruth got elected sheriff, without any cause at all, just because they supported the opposite man."
Watson said he is considering running against Ruth in the 2014 Republican primary, but he hasn't made a final decision.
"Law enforcement has always been my dream, always been my career," he said. "A lot of people are showing encouragement to me to run for sheriff cause of my background in law enforcement."
Longwith said he's not been able to find steady work in law enforcement since his firing. He's lost his income, his health insurance and his retirement, he said.
"I worked there 10 and a half years and never had but one write-up in my file. I was going to retire from there; then they messed that up," he said.
"The way they're handling their personnel over there -- this is my opinion -- they don't have the right to do that."
Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...