Deputies fired over racist texts retired on disability

Published: Tuesday, October 11, 2016 @ 5:54 PM


            Two Montgomery County Sheriff’s deputies accused of sending racial text messages were terminated in February 2015. Sheriff Phil Plummer, right, and Major Daryl Wilson discussed the investigation during a press conference. JIM WITMER / STAFF
Two Montgomery County Sheriff’s deputies accused of sending racial text messages were terminated in February 2015. Sheriff Phil Plummer, right, and Major Daryl Wilson discussed the investigation during a press conference. JIM WITMER / STAFF

Staying with the story

For several years, I-Team has repeatedly investigated public workers cashing out on disability pensions while they are being disciplined or fired for alleged wrongdoings.

Deputies’ text messages

A sample of text messages exchanged by former sheriff’s deputies Michael Sollenberger and Tom Flanders, who were fired in February 2015:

Sollenberger: “Watching history channel on MLK. Showing old films of restaurants in the south. It would have been fun to beat up coloreds cause they came into your restaurant.”

Flanders: “What do apples and black people have in common? They both hang from trees.”

Sollenberger: “(President Obama is a) half-breed… Just because a n***** scammed the election and is pres. It does not give the G-damn right to shop at DLM.”

Timeline

August 2014: The Dayton Unit NAACP receives 105 pages of text messages between Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office employees and launches an investigation into their authenticity before turning them over to the sheriff.

December 2014: Sheriff Phil Plummer suspends Capt. Thomas Flanders and Det. Michael Sollenberger as his office investigates the texts.

Feb. 6, 2015: Plummer announces discipline is being taken against five employees. Flanders and Sollenberger are fired and three other officers are suspended for 3, 10, and 30 days, respectively. Flanders says he plans to appeal the termination, but never does.

Feb. 10, 2015: Plummer signs a form from the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System — that he says he was required to sign — processing Flanders’ application for disability retirement.

April 22, 2015: Plummer signs a form processing Sollenberger’s application for disability retirement.

May 2015: OPERS notifies the sheriff’s office that Flanders’ application was approved by the OPERS board and his retirement is effective March 1.

May 2015: Sollenberger sues the sheriff’s office, his ex-wife and others, alleging they violated his privacy in obtaining the texts.

July 2015: OPERS notifies the sheriff’s office that its executive director granted Sollenberger’s disability application and its full board would approve it in August.

September 2015: Deputy Joseph Connelly, who received the 30-day suspension, had his suspension reduced to three days after he grieved the decision through his union and an arbitrator sided with him. The sheriff’s office had to reimburse him for unpaid days off.

March 2016: A federal judge dismisses Sollenberger’s lawsuit.

Two Montgomery County sheriff’s deputies reportedly fired last year for exchanging racist text messages both quietly took disability retirement, an I-Team investigation found.

A third employee given a 30-day suspension had that suspension reduced to three days, forcing the department to pay him back for several weeks of missed work.

The discipline followed a sheriff’s office probe into racially derogatory text messages among former Det. Michael Sollenberger, Capt. Tom Flanders and others. Sollenberger’s estranged wife sent the messages to the Dayton Unit NAACP.

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Sheriff Phil Plummer announced in February 2015 that the pair were fired, and three other employees were suspended: one for three days, one for 10 and one for 30.

“(Plummer) not only lied about it, he coverd it up,” said Bishop Richard Cox, local Southern Christian Leadership Conference president.

“He said one thing to the public and turned right around and did another,” Cox said. “As far as we’re concerned and as far as the African American community is concerned, he is a liar and he is not to be trusted.”

Plummer declined to comment for this story.

Officials with his office said privacy laws prevent them from talking about employees’ disabilities, and that the decision to grant someone disability retirement rests entirely with the pension system.

Flanders and Sollenberger were terminated Feb. 6, 2015. Flanders announced plans to appeal his termination and Sollenberger filed lawsuit against the sheriff’s office, which a judge threw out in March 2016.

Flanders’ wife launched a gofundme account to “fight back” against the charges, raising $3,800 in 20 months.

But while he was suspended amid the investigation, Flanders claimed he had a disability and applied for disability retirement from the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System. Records obtained by the I-Team show the application was processed by the sheriff’s office Feb. 10 and approved by the OPERS board in May, effective March 1.

Sollenberger’s application was processed by the sheriff’s office in April and approved by OPERS in July.

Records don’t show what disabilites the pair claimed.

OPERS spokeswoman Julie Graham-Price said her agency can confirm both Flanders and Sollenberger are retired, but can’t disclose what type of retirement they took or any other details about their retirement.

Public employees cashing out on a disability retirement while facing discipline for misconduct has been a source of controversy for years. An investigation by this newspaper after fired Miami Twp. deputy police chief John DiPetro retired on disability in 2013 found that more than a third of OPERS’ law enforcement division retirees received disability.

Graham-Price said the system was made more stringent that year, and applications now require medical reviews by independent physicians.

“It’s a pretty stringent process,” she said.

Sollenberger worked for the sheriff’s office 19 years, and Flanders 17 years.

Flanders currently works for a health insurance company. Reached at work this week, he said, “I have nothing to say to you guys.”

Reached at his Oakwood home, Sollenberger likewise declined to comment, saying, “You can leave or I’m calling the police.”

Plummer said Flanders and Sollenberger were fired for insubordination and ethical conduct after they denied doing anything wrong. Three other employees involved in the case also violated department ethics, Plummer said. They admitted their mistakes, he said, and were apologetic, so they received suspensions.

The most severe suspension went to Deputy Joseph Connelly, who was suspended 30 days. But sheriff’s office records obtained by the I-Team show an arbitrator shortened the suspension to three days.

Dayton Unit NAACP President Derrick Foward said Tuesday he is looking into how these disiciplinary measures were handled.

Sheriff’s office personnel director Julie Droessler said in an email Tuesday that Connelly filed a grievance under his union contract, which went to binding arbitration. The arbitrator agreed with the policy violation, she said, but reduced the suspension. The department had to pay back any additional days he was off on unpaid suspension.

“The sheriff still asserts a 30-day suspension was appropriate for Deputy Connelly,” she said. “Also, the discipline issued to the four other employees was upheld and remains in the employees file.”

In the wake of the texting scandal, Plummer pledged department-wide diversity training.

Cox said the training fell short, as evidenced by the current internal review of Maj. Scott Landis, who was caught on tape saying a black corrections officer should “go back to his thug life.”

The SCLC has scheduled a press conference for Wednesday at which time Cox said more evidence will be released detailing rampant, unchecked racism in the sheriff’s office.