Questions about the Clay County chief sheriff’s deputy’s on-the-job behavior are causing a rift in the sheriff’s office, according to department documents.
Unsigned letters from the department’s merit deputies, a memo from Clay Sheriff Paul Harden, and minutes from a recent Clay County Sheriff’s Merit Board meeting show a divided department.
Harden supported Chief Deputy Josh Clarke following an internal investigation into allegations of inappropriate workplace behavior and inappropriate communications with a fellow deputy’s wife.
Harden’s decision prompted other members of the department to bring the matter back to the merit committee at its Oct. 5 hearing.
On August 19, Merit MPs wrote a letter to Harden expressing “dissatisfaction with the direction of” Clarke. The letter, MPs say, is intended to serve as a vote of no confidence in the deputy leader and his ability to serve and function in that capacity.
“Joshua D. Clarke did not cultivate a stable work environment, but rather a toxic one,” the letter to Harden says. “There have been many conversations regarding his behavior, but no change has been seen.
“Over time, the problems have not only increased in frequency, but also in severity.”
A message left at Clarke’s station at the sheriff’s office on Wednesday was not returned. The Tribune-Star did not have a cell phone number for Clarke. Messages seeking comment from Sherriff Harden were not returned on Tuesday and Wednesday.
In an Aug. 29 written complaint to Merit Council Chairman Ron Leach, the deputies described several alleged instances of conduct unbecoming an officer, including:
• Inappropriate communications with the wife of a meritorious MP;
• Threatening to physically harm a merit deputy in the presence of another merit deputy;
• Verbally assaulting a deserving MP for a political sign in the backyard of a friend of that MP and approaching the friend of the MP in a public place and interrogating him;
• Kicking the chair while a merit deputy was seated and commenting that the merit deputy had one coming – knowing that the merit deputy previously had back problems;
“We believe the Clay County Sheriff‘s Office is at a turning point,” the merit deputies wrote in their Aug. 19 letter.
“The morale and prospects of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office are at stake. We believe there is a common thread in the negativity of Clay County Sheriff’s Office Joshua D. Clarke.”
Harden placed Clarke on administrative leave on August 31 after learning of the allegations. He then launched an internal investigation into the allegations.
After meeting with deputies and Clarke, Harden – in a Sept. 14 memo to department members – said he had reprimanded Clarke but would not recommend discipline or firing.
“To be clear, I did not find any conduct for which discipline or termination was an appropriate recommendation to the merit committee, and therefore I do not anticipate any further action based on the matters examined during my investigation,” wrote Harden.
“I recognize that not everyone will agree with my decision, and I understand that. Nonetheless, as Sheriff of Clay County, I have a responsibility to the people of this county and to this office to be fair. to all concerned.
“…I consider this case closed,” he said before restoring Clarke to full status.
Merit MPs disagree.
At a merit committee meeting later that day, deputies criticized the sheriff’s decision and asked the merit committee to conduct its own investigation.
The minutes of that night’s meeting do not say who spoke, but do list the deputies present – Sgt. Mike Heaton, Deputy Brison Swearingen, Detective James Switzer, Deputy Homer Knopp, Deputy Eric Oberholtzer, Detective Sgt. Johnnie Bohnert, Detective Andrew Longyear and Deputy Hunter Gambill – were not supportive of the position taken by the sheriff.
The merit committee continued the discussion until they consulted legal counsel. It will then meet at 7:30 p.m. on October 5 in the Clay County Justice Center conference room.
Reporter Alex Modesitt can be reached at 812-231-4232 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TribStarAlex.