Sheriff Learns the Limits of His Power

Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis Jr. is a man who's used to getting whatever he wants, usually through badgering and bullying other elected officials. Lately, though, the blustery Leis has gotten a cold, hard dose of reality.

Feb 18, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis Jr. is a man who’s used to getting whatever he wants, usually through badgering and bullying other elected officials. Lately, though, the blustery Leis has gotten a cold, hard dose of reality.

First, a federal judge recently rejected Leis’ claim that he had qualified immunity and couldn’t be forced to testify in a lawsuit brought by an inmate who was struck three times point blank in the chest by a pepperball gun fired by an angry county corrections officer while the inmate was shackled to a chair.

The inmate had caused a disturbance earlier and got mouthy with the corrections officer, Sgt. Michelle Moore. After he was restrained, the inmate used a racial epithet.

The lawsuit alleges Moore used excessive force in the August 2007 incident and that Leis condoned the action, which violates the inmate’s right against cruel and unusual punishment. That’s because three supervisors who watched a videotape of the incident concluded Moore used excessive force and should be penalized by attending three counseling sessions. But Leis overturned their decision and didn’t impose a penalty against Moore, prompting the lawsuit.

A lawyer for Leis argued that the inmate’s injuries weren’t severe enough to constitute a violation of his rights and that Leis and Moore shouldn’t be compelled to testify. U.S. District Court Judge Michael Barrett, former Hamilton County Republican Party chairman, disagreed.

In his decision, Barrett cited a federal court ruling that stated the doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials performing discretionary functions only from individual liability “insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”

Barrett then cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that stated “when prison officials maliciously and sadistically use force to cause harm, contemporary standards of decency always are violated … this is true whether or not significant injury is evident.”

Moore can regularly be seen going about her duties on a sanitized reality TV show called Inside American Jail in syndication (seen locally on Channel 64) and simply Jail on the TruTV cable network. That’s because Leis allowed a video crew from the program, by producers of the long-running Cops show, into the county’s facilities.

In addition, Leis finally is being slammed for the wasteful spending in the Sheriff’s Office. After years of county commissioners basically caving in to all of Leis’ budget requests, a financial crisis is making them take a tougher stance.

Commissioners sought $40 million in cuts spread across all county departments to avoid a deficit, caused mostly by sluggish sales tax revenues and cuts in state funding.

As a result, commissioners made numerous General Fund reductions, including cuts from the County Engineer (38.8 percent), commissioners (37.5 percent), County Auditor (33.7 percent), Treasurer (26 percent), Board of Elections (24.1 percent), Juvenile Court (23.6 percent), the Clerk of Courts (21.1 percent) and Recorder (18.2 percent).

The Sheriff’s Office took just a 16 percent cut.

Even with the cuts, the Sheriff’s Office still was allocated $63.5 million for this year. That amounts to about 27 percent of Hamilton County’s $239 million General Fund budget, the largest single slice.

Leis isn’t happy and wants commissioners to dip into emergency reserves and give him more cash. There’s only about 5 percent of the county’s budget in the account, however, well below the accepted standard of 15 percent. The county’s bond rating could be jeopardized if the account is lowered further, meaning it would cost the county more to borrow money for all departments.

Instead, commissioners want Leis to reprioritize his spending. Suggested cuts include selling some of the office’s 54 take-home cars used by employees and reallocating some of the $3 million in the drug asset forfeiture fund that’s now used to pay for two helicopters.


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