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Sheriff saga: Who’s on First?

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Coulter’s sudden resignation forces Stump to scramble

By Ryan Conley

Ringing in the new year was hardly done in a traditional way for Spencer County Sheriff Buddy Stump.

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Stump, who last November won a narrow election over sitting sheriff Steve Coulter, scrambled to assemble a staff on New Year’s Eve when Coulter confirmed his rumored early resignation — two days before the state-mandated end to his term.

In addition to his abrupt resignation, Coulter on Dec. 31 also, in the opinion of some, effectively terminated the employment of his entire staff, including eight deputies. That move, as viewed by some, would have left the county without law enforcement coverage from the sheriff’s office for two days.
But after seeking legal advice from County Attorney Ruth Hollan and local judges Charles Hickman and Linda Armstrong, Stump rounded up three deputies from Coulter’s staff and the quartet was sworn in by incoming Judge Executive Bill Karrer.

“We had a wild weekend,” Stump said during Monday’s Fiscal Court meeting. “Things went on and we didn’t miss a lick. We didn’t get much sleep, but it all worked out.”

Stump delivered some other allegations on Coulter’s exit to Fiscal Court members, including alleged damaged or missing office property, and missing computer files, among others.

“We came into the office on Saturday and it was pretty much a wreck,” he said. “We think we have some stuff that belongs to the office that is not there. We will have to do a little investigation to see what those items are.”

County information technology consultant Melvin Gore, who owns GD Computer Specialist in Taylorsville, at one point told the court that two computers in the office were not working, terming them as “maliciously down.” Shortly after, he told The Spencer Magnet that he couldn’t elaborate because he hadn’t had possession of the equipment.

But he said, “records are gone. If a record is considered an important record, then yes, because warrants are gone.”
Gore later clarified his statements about malicious intent to The Spencer Magnet.

“Truthfully, I don’t know if I used the right words at this time, because I actually haven’t gotten my hands on those computers,” he said. “At this time, I haven’t been able to get my hands on it. I may have jumped the gun in using that word.”

COULTER REACTS

Coulter, who had served as sheriff since 1994, denied any wrongdoing when contacted by The Spencer Magnet.

“I don’t have a comment because I haven’t done anything wrong,” he said.

Coulter said he was of the understanding that his term ended on Dec. 31. He also noted that bond insurance covering his tenure expired on Dec. 31.

But the Kentucky Constitution clearly states that incoming elected officials do not begin their terms until the first Monday in January after the election; or in the case of this year, Jan. 3.

“He gave written and oral notice that as of Dec. 31 he was finished,” said Hollan. “When Buddy and everyone got sworn in on Friday, their terms didn’t start until (midnight of Jan. 3). But Friday night, Steve said, I’m done. He said, ‘I am not coming back.’”

Hollan said she wasn’t sure if criminal charges were merited against Coulter. But she said if they were, they would be brought by another prosecutor, because of the professional relationship she had with Coulter for the past eight years.

Stump also would not comment on any possible action against Coulter, but said matters could be investigated, most likely by an outside agency.

Commonwealth Attorney Laura Donnell, whose circuit includes Spencer County, said her office had not heard anything about the situation with the sheriff’s office, and declined further comment.

TRANSFER TIMELINE

According to Stump, Coulter told the new sheriff of his exit shortly after the formal swearing-in ceremony of all public officials on the morning of Dec. 31, and that the two agreed to meet in the office at midnight for a formal transfer. Stump then contacted Hollan and the judges, and the assembled staff was sworn in around 5:30 p.m.

“That’s because we anticipated we wouldn’t meet,” Stump said.

Stump and Karrer met at the sheriff’s office at midnight to secure door keys and other items, but Coulter didn’t show, both officials claim. Karrer said he then instructed Stump to contact Coulter.

“I have it (the conversation) recorded, asking him if he is no longer sheriff as of tonight,” Karrer said. “And he said, that was correct.”

But Coulter said the keys were already left at the office. “The keys to the vehicles, everything, was left at the office,” he said.

Coulter also denied that he terminated his staff. “I didn’t get rid of anybody; I wish them the best,” he said.

A copy of a Dec. 28 letter written to his staff obtained by The Spencer Magnet shows Coulter saying, in part, “My term as Sheriff of Spencer County will be ending December 31, 2010, therefore your services under my employ will no longer be needed as of end of day on that date.”

Stump said he acted quickly because some deputies were already scheduled to work shifts following the Dec. 31 departure of Coulter. He said any actions taken by deputies during that time period could be viewed as criminal, including such possible charges as wrongful imprisonment or impersonating an officer, among others.

“The county could have been in a lot of trouble with liability issues,” he said.

SAFETY ISSUES?

At one point in the Fiscal Court meeting, Magristrate Hobert Judd asked if the safety of the county had been compromised.

“No, because we stepped up,” Stump replied, noting assistance he received from Kentucky State Police and the Taylorsville Police Department. “It was about to be a mess. We all pulled together as a group effort. And the needs of the county were met.”

Hollan or Karrer both said they couldn’t comment specifically on Coulter’s assertions that he had the right to leave because his insurance bond expired (sheriffs are typically bonded at a higher rate in Kentucky — in Stump’s case a total of $510,000 — because of tax collection responsibilities). But both felt he should have stayed through the Jan. 3 start date mandated by Kentucky law.

“Let’s say he honestly thought this is the end of his term ... we didn’t have any good notice that hey, this is me, I am done,” Karrer said. “We still had to act.

“That’s for other people to determine on whether the way he left office was correct or not, that’s an issue; whether there is missing equipment, that’s an issue; whether there is damaged or missing software.” he continued. “I just know there is missing stuff in the office from the other day when I had the locksmith in to change locks.”

WHOSE STUFF?

Coulter said the computer he used as a sheriff is his own, one of many purchases he said was made to serve the people of Spencer County better.

“Why did I have to buy my (own) duty belt, my radios?” he said. “The county was broke at that time. I owned my own car until 2005. I can tell you that the computer in my office was mine. I brought it there and have receipts for it. The county purchased my monitor. Nothing was taken that belonged to the county.”

Stump asked for and received approval from Fiscal Court to obtain three new computers, a printer, a scanner and a server for his office. The cost of the new equipment is $6,928.

“That is really an unexpected expense that I wasn’t anticipating,” he told the court. “We need some computers, some printers. We are just about not functioning. We are just barely skimming by, but we will make it work.”

Stump said he inherited a large cache of civil lawsuit summonses and criminal complaints that went undelivered under Coulter’s tenure. The criminal complaints, which include ones from other counties, are particularly troubling to Stump, because court dates had been scheduled.

Some criminal complaints The Spencer Magnet viewed dated back into the summer.

Coulter said his department made attempts to deliver all complaints. “If we can’t contact them, we sure can’t serve them,” he said. “I don’t hold papers for anybody. I can’t.”
Stump showed The Spencer Magnet how he had sealed his office’s gun safe and property room, which houses evidence taken from crime scenes. Stump said he felt that was a prudent procedure in the wake of a transfer, but wouldn’t comment if he felt certain evidence may have been compromised in the process.

Fiscal Court approved Stump’s request to seek the employment of four new deputies and five part-time court security workers. At least two deputies — Larry Goodlett and Kyle Bennett — previously said they would not work for Stump.

Coulter and Stump have an acrimonious relationship dating back to when Stump was a deputy for a few years under Coulter. Stump was later fired by Coulter and most recently, prior to his election, was a detective with the Mt. Washington Police Department. Stump also ran an unsuccessful campaign for Spencer County sheriff in 2006.

In an interview prior to the end of his term, Coulter said he would make the transition as smooth as he could for Stump.
“Even though there is friction between myself and the incoming sheriff, we will get through it and handle it properly, as an officer should,” Coulter said in a Dec. 23 interview. “I am not going to do anything to mess him up.”

Reporter Mallory Bilger contributed to this article.