Back in late June, two rival factions within the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association got into a physical brawl. Now one of the factions has taken the fight to a higher level: a legal brawl. That might be considered progress, but few appear relieved. On August 9, union forces loyal to President Steven Fisk filed a RICO suit in Sacramento federal court. The 57-page complaint seeks the removal of Vice President Brannon Polete and all board members who support him, claiming that the association has been run as a “racketeering enterprise” dominated by the sheriff and other county officials. It’s the latest turn in a power struggle within the 1,700-member union that began nearly a year ago.
Last September a police officer from the City of Elk Grove (south of Sacramento) ticketed an off-duty sheriff’s captain for not having a front license plate on a private vehicle. This routine act triggered unforeseen consequences. President Fisk soon posted a heated letter on the association website hinting at a “ticket war” and harassment of Elk Grove officers during the booking process at the county jail, run by the Sheriff’s Department. His rival, Brannon Polete, and the union board proceeded to oust Fisk, alleging misconduct. Fisk sued to get his job back, and won; in late May a state judge ordered him reinstated.
Once back in office, Fisk fired Polete. In turn, Polete, with the board’s support, suspended Fisk. But Fisk held the upper hand. His and key supporters overwhelmingly won a vote to recall 15 board members loyal to Polete. In turn, Polete alleged the vote was invalid because it was ratified in April, before Fisk’s reinstatement. Fisk then set up a “peaceful” June 29 outdoor meeting with Polete’s people. It turned into a shoving match. Not long after, Polete and several armed deputies broke into Fisk’s office. Fisk, elected to a four-year term effective January 1, 2004, fired back. As reported in Union Corruption Update, his attorney, Gary Gorski, was preparing a racketeering suit. Now the ink on the final draft is dry, and the papers have been filed. The association, the complaint reads, “has been infiltrated at all levels by corrupt individuals who exerted their control and influence over the union for personal gain and to the detriment of the union, plaintiffs and the SCDSA general (voting) membership.”
Fisk and his people might seem to be the ones most interested in personal gain. The suit, officially listed as Barnsdale et al., is demanding $400 million in damages from the defendants, a sum quite obviously not to be taken seriously. But whatever award Fisk and his allies do get (if any) might in part be the result of help from an unexpected source. The California Public Employment Relations Board filed a complaint on August 15 alleging that Sacramento County engaged in unfair labor practices when it failed to recognize Fisk as president of the union. The complaint alleges that county officials did not recognize full-time officers appointed by Fisk, withheld its accounting of union funds, and ignored a recall election of union board members. If there are good guys in this shootout, they’ve been pretty hard to find so far. (Sacramento Bee, 8/10/07; SFGate.com, 8/16/07; other sources).