Discontent brews against sheriff, two ex-employees angle for his job

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Clifton Kilby, a candidate for Forsyth County sheriff, campaigns at the Forsyth County Government Center.

by Jordan Green

The Republican primary for Forsyth County sheriff is shaped by long-brewing disputes over staffing under the administration of Bill Schatzman.

Bill Schatzman, a former FBI agent and political moderate who has led the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office for 12 years, faces a challenge in the Republican primary from two more conservative former employees who see an opening with mounting discontent on several fronts.

“I came in with three goals,” said Schatzman, who was first elected in 2002. “The first was to end cronyism, nepotism and favoritism. The second was to make hiring and promotion based on qualifications and performance. I was a trainer in the bureau, so the third was to improve training. I took all of that and brought it here, and tried to reshape the culture.”

Schatzman said the department has modernized under his leadership, transforming from an agency with a largely rural focus to one appropriate for an urban county with the fifth-largest population in the state that serves six municipalities outside of Winston-Salem and Kernersville. Under Schatzman’s watch the agency has received certification by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

Schatzman said he had retired from the FBI and was working as a security consultant when the Forsyth County Republican Party asked him to mount a campaign to replace the scandal-plagued administration of Sherriff Ron Barker, also a Republican.

After Schatzman won his first election, he appointed Dave Griffith, a retired US marshal, as his chief deputy sheriff. Griffith said Schatzman didn’t appreciate his advice and dismissed him after four years.

“I think he has been a poor sheriff,” Griffith said. “I think he has not given the people of Forsyth County the services they deserve.”

Schatzman’s challenger in 2006 was Lonnie Maines, a polygraph operator whose position was eliminated by the sheriff. Schatzman won the election, 84.3 percent to 15.7 percent.

Four years later, Griffith ran against his former boss, narrowing the margin to within 10 percent.

Clifton Kilby, a longtime employee of the office, said he had considered a run at the time, but feared he would be fired after the election if he were not successful. After retiring in 2011, Kilby said he felt secure to challenge Schatzman without fear of losing his benefits.

Among the three candidates, allegations of cronyism and vindictive treatment of employees perceived to be disloyal have swirled in the increasingly nasty race. No Democrat filed for the office, so the winner of the May 6 Republican primary will be the county’s next sheriff. If no candidate can muster more than 40 percent of the vote, the top two candidates will go into a runoff.

The two challengers have both accused the incumbent of hypocrisy because he contracted a former FBI colleague to handle the office’s polygraph needs after eliminating the full-time position held by Maines.

While acknowledging that Robert Drdak is a friend and associate with whom he formerly served in the FBI, Schatzman defended the contract, stating that Drdak’s services are sought by clients across the state, including Raleigh defense lawyer Joe Cheshire. Schatzman added and that Drdak’s work for the sheriff’s office represents only 10 percent of his business. He denied that anyone was fired from the sheriff’s office to create an opportunity for Drdak.

Griffith and Kilby impugned the relationship between Schatzman and Drdak in separate interviews by stating that Drdak left Schatzman’s home intoxicated and was involved in a motor vehicle accident. Schatzman acknowledged that Drdak was in a motor vehicle accident after leaving his house. The accident took place in 1989, according to state court records.

“We don’t have a need for a full-time polygraph operator,” Schatzman said. “The business we have, we need a part-time polygrapher. He comes in three to five days a month.”

Griffith and Kilby have also accused Schatzman of allowing his current chief deputy, Brad Stanley, to appoint his unmarried partner to a position under his supervision.

Schatzman said called the charge “nonsense,” adding that Stanley doesn’t make any hiring decisions and that Stanley supervises all department employees as chief operating officer of the organization.

Griffith and Kilby fault Schatzman for firing Mike Russell, an Iraq war veteran who bought a raffle ticket to support Griffith’s 2010 campaign.

Russell sued Schatzman in June 2012, alleging a violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act, a federal law passed in 1994 that ensures that armed services members can reclaim their civilian jobs upon returning from deployment. After the US Justice Department intervened on Russell’s behalf, the Forsyth County Commission approved a $96,000 settlement to Russell without admitting to any violation of the law.

“I find it morally wrong and petty,” Griffith said.

Schatzman defended the decision to fire Russell.

“What we do here is a team effort,” he said. “I suggest to you that if your newspaper finds out you’re providing scoops to the competition you will be fired.

“If you work for me, I have to have complete trust and confidence,” he added.

Schatzman is not the only candidate weathering the slings of a brutal campaign season as it relates to staffing.

Kilby alleged that Griffith plans to replace the command staff with friends who are retired federal agents if he wins the election. He said friendly staff at a Greek restaurant in Kernersville reported to him that Griffith’s friends boasted aloud to one another about their prospects for employment.

“There are several federal agents that are looking at having top positions in his administration,” Kilby said. “They’re already retired. They’re going to stay five years so they can draw a second retirement and bleed the retirement system.”

Griffith dismissed the assertion as “ridiculous.”

“Nobody has been offered or promised or given a job,” he said. “It’s against the law, and I will not violate the law. Will I look for talent and surround myself with talent? Of course I will. And there’s talent within the sheriff’s office. There will be some reassignments. Will I bring in some people from the outside? Sure I will. Clif will do the same thing.”

The two challengers have criticized Schatzman’s administration for what they say is high turnover resulting in a lack of experience on the force. Schatzman countered that the department holds an annual turnover rate of 11 percent, compared to 14 percent on average for law enforcement agencies across the state. He also said the average deputy is 36 years old with eight years of experience.

Both challengers have criticized the incumbent’s handling of immigration enforcement.

Griffith said that when he served as chief deputy he was approached by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement about making Winston-Salem a hub for deportations, but Schatzman didn’t like the idea. Griffith said the county could have leased excess beds in the county jail to the feds to house detainees awaiting deportation, and ICE could have used Smith Reynolds Airport to fly them out of the country. But the opportunity has passed.

“Alamance County has the holding facility,” Griffith said. “Raleigh has the aviation facility.”

Kilby charged that the current administration is too lax in its dealing with people who lack proper documentation.

“If they got stopped for not having a seatbelt on, I would not have the guys accept that,” Kilby said. “If they don’t have ID, I’d arrest them and bring them downtown to be processed and fingerprinted.”

Schatzman said the department currently submits the fingerprints of all people arrested to ICE and gives the federal government the opportunity to place detainers on offenders determined to be in the country illegal. The process is handled through a mandatory program called Secure Communities.

“We’re not going to go around asking people for papers,” Schatzman said. “If you’re pulled over and you don’t have your driver’s license, do we take you to jail? No. If you’re Jose or Maria, do you think the deputy sheriff should take you to jail because you don’t have a driver’s license? I don’t think so. That’s not the kind of community we are.”

Despite the clear difference between Schatzman and Kilby’s respective positions on immigration enforcement, the election might hinge instead on how current and former employees, along with their friends — a loose cohort known as “the sheriff’s office family” — feel about the current leadership.

While Kilby was campaigning in the parking garage outside the early-voting location at the Forsyth County Government Center last week, a man wearing a Wake Forest University cap approached him.

“Is Lonnie Maines backing you?” he asked. “When I heard they paid out 90-some thousand dollars, that’s all I needed to hear.”