The eight McLennan County Sheriff’s Office employees fired by incoming Sheriff Parnell McNamara last month supported his opponent, Randy Plemons, in the May Republican primary election, Plemons said Thursday.
Six of the former employees filed a federal lawsuit against McNamara and the county Wednesday, claiming McNamara fired them for publicly supporting Plemons, in violation of their First Amendment rights.
McNamara denied the claim, saying the employees lost their jobs in a department reorganization that allowed him to create a new narcotics unit and pursue other campaign goals.
Plemons, in an interview Thursday, said he was unaware of the lawsuit but recognized each of the fired employees as supporters of his campaign.
Plemons lost to McNamara, who went on to defeat two challengers Nov. 6 for the right to replace Larry Lynch, who did not seek a fourth term as sheriff.
Plemons, Lynch’s chief deputy, left the department voluntarily last month to take a job with the Denton County Sheriff’s Office.
He said he had not followed news of McNamara’s reorganization, which included the eight firings, the appointment of a mostly
new command staff, and raises and pay cuts to various employees.
“I am totally unfamiliar with the reorganization and where people have been placed or anything like that,” Plemons said. “Being in Denton County, I’m a little removed from what’s going on there (in McLennan County).”
McLennan County sheriff’s deputies have no civil service protection and serve at the sheriff’s will. Courts have ruled that sheriffs in Texas have broad discretion in choosing employees and can fire them with or without cause, absent contractual limitations, as long as the decisions are not politically motivated.
David Schleicher, a Waco attorney who frequently represents government employees, said the law may allow a high-level official to be fired for campaigning for an opponent, but typically not workers in lower-level jobs.
The lawsuit alleges McNamara used the department reorganization as a “guise” to reward campaign supporters with jobs and raises and punish opponents with pay cuts, demotions and firings.
McNamara said Wednesday he kept and even promoted some of Plemons’ supporters, showing the firings were not politically motivated. He could not be reached for comment Thursday.
County commissioners approved McNamara’s reorganization Jan. 2, a day after he was sworn in.
County Judge Scott Felton, who leads the commissioners court, declined to comment Thursday, saying the issue was a personnel and legal matter. Waco attorney Mike Dixon, who represents the county, also declined to comment.
The plaintiffs are listed as Jimmie Channon, a patrol lieutenant; W. Derick Johnson, a patrol sergeant; William L. McKamey, a patrol corporal; Anthony W. McRae, a jail lieutenant; J.C. Riggs, a jail sergeant; and Norman Wade, the jail’s mental health deputy.
According to the lawsuit, each campaigned for Plemons while off-duty by handing out yard signs, canvassing neighborhoods or attending fundraisers, debates or other events.
Riggs allowed his 7-year-old grandson to depict a young McNamara riding a stick horse in a controversial Plemons television advertisement meant to question McNamara’s qualifications for office.
According to the lawsuit, it was “widely known” throughout the department that the child portraying McNamara was Riggs’ grandson.
McNamara previously identified the six plaintiffs as among the terminated employees, along with former administrative Capt. Paul Wash and Anna Marie Reyes, Lynch’s secretary. Wash, who now works for county Commissioner Ben Perry’s precinct crew, did not return a message seeking comment Thursday. Reyes could not be reached.
Lynch, who endorsed Plemons in the primary, has said he reassigned workers and accepted some resignations when he took office in 2000 but did not fire anyone.
But unlike McNamara, Lynch had been part of the sheriff’s office administration when he took over the top job.
McNamara was a deputy U.S. marshal for 32 years before retiring in 2003.