An Osceola County sheriff’s sergeant remains demoted to deputy despite claims he was retaliated against because he ran for sheriff.
Deputy Marco Lopez and his attorney said he’s protected by free speech, but the Orange County Sheriff’s Office claims his political campaign violated department policy.
The Sherriff’s Office insists Lopez violated department policy by posting on his campaign Facebook page, and Lopez appealed.
In his campaign page Facebook post, Lopez said the department is not as diverse as the community it serves, and he warned of situations similar to the Ferguson, Missouri, riots and the Baltimore protests, which were racially motivated.
Lopez says he posted it a picture of himself in uniform on his personal Facebook page, not as a campaign tool, and that an administrator on his personal site may have shared it on his political page, WFTV 9 reports.
“When you run for political office, it gets busy. I have two Facebook pages. It’s hard to maintain all that when you’re out campaigning every day,” Lopez said.
The review board, made up of sheriff’s office employees, decided to throw out Lopez’s one-week suspension, but still ruled he violated three department policies and demoted him from sergeant to deputy.
“I think this is perfect example of the fox guarding the chicken coop,” said Lopez’s attorney, Dan Perez.
In the appeal hearing, internal affairs investigators said they believe Lopez violated department policy by criticizing the sheriff’s office and posting a picture of himself in uniform on his campaign Facebook while running for sheriff.
Lopez’s campaign manager argues that his candidate was addressing valid community issues, not criticizing the Sheriff’s Office.
“How can you run for a governmental office if can’t express the deficiencies of that public office?” said Ruben DeJesus, Lopez’s campaign manager.
DeJesus testified that he made 95 percent of the posts, not Lopez.
Whether or not Lopez made the posts himself is not the debate his lawyer contends.
His attorney believes his personal political statements are protected under the First Amendment, and the Constitution should trump any department policy.
With Thursday’s decision to uphold the violations against Lopez and demote him from sergeant to deputy, Lopez’s attorney said they are planning to sue the sheriff’s office.
“This was absolutely, number one, a political attack and number two, an attack on his First Amendment rights to express his point of view,” said Perez.
The Sheriff’s Office said an appeals system in place is to make sure the disciplinary process is fair, but wouldn’t comment on the planned lawsuit.
In a video on WFTV it’s reported that Sheriff Bob Hansell campaigned in uniform for another candidate and appeared in political posts on social media, but no disciplinary action is being levied in those instances. The other candidate also did not succeed in his bid for sheriff.
Lopez will be taking a $14,000 pay cut with the demotion, according to WFTV 9.
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