Friday October 27, 2006
Sheriff accused of wiretapping
Deputy says videotape violated civil rights
Press & Sun-Bulletin
A sheriff's deputy is accusing her boss, Broome County Sheriff David E. Harder, and other administrators and detectives, of violating her civil rights by wiretapping her and others in a room at the sheriff's department.
In a federal complaint to be filed today in Albany, Deborah Phelps, a nine-year veteran of the department, alleges she was denied her sergeant's stripes after she was disciplined for complaining about Harder last November to a confidential informant in the room in question at the Town of Dickinson facility.
Phelps' comments were illegally captured by a hidden microphone and camera hidden in the room that were monitored by a detective in another room, said her Albany-area attorney, Elmer Robert Keach III. The room is used for investigatory interviews, strip searches, union conferences and attorney-client meetings, Keach said.
Harder declined to comment on Phelps' complaint, saying he had not seen the lawsuit. He also declined an offer to review a faxed copy of the complaint.
Broome County Attorney Joseph Sluzar was not available for comment Thursday.
Wiretapping without a warrant is a violation of federal law, Keach said. Nor do special exemptions for law enforcement apply in this case. "No judge anywhere would sign a warrant to allow Sheriff Harder to wiretap lawyers and his own employees," Keach said.
The wiretapping equipment was also used to monitor meetings between criminal defense attorneys and their clients, Keach said. That's a violation of attorney-client privilege, the attorney said.
Keach said the timing of the complaint was not motivated by politics. Harder is up for re-election for a third four-year term on Nov. 7.
Phelps said in the complaint that she was not aware that a tape recorder was hidden in the room. The room in question is next door to an interview room with visible recording equipment used to take statements from suspects in criminal cases.
On Nov. 10, Phelps complained to the confidential informant that her boss was jeopardizing public safety by staffing public relations events with deputies and for refusing to promote her in favor of other deputies he considered his friends. That conversation was secretly taped by Detective Sgt. Kate Newcomb, and a copy of the tape was given to Harder, the lawsuit states.
Also named in Phelps' complaint besides Harder and Newcomb are Undersheriff Gary F. O'Neill and Detective Lt. Michael Fedish.