The fate of one of Sheriff Jesse Bane’s top lieutenants, who may face charges for undisclosed offenses, has become a late-election season political football as challenger Jeff Gahler has accused Bane of delaying the investigation for political gain.
Major Mark Forwood, the head of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office’s criminal investigations unit and a hand-picked Bane appointment to the position, has been on paid suspension since April while Baltimore County police pursued an investigation into an allegation of improper conduct by the 21-year department veteran.
Forwood’s attorney Augustus Brown said the investigation has concluded and the Baltimore County state’s attorney is reviewing the findings and would determine whether to file any charges. But some members of the community, including Gahler and Dagger readers, have questioned why the investigation has taken more than six months to run its course.
Bane told The Dagger on Friday that Gahler has played into those suspicions for his own political gain, spreading word that Bane has been delaying the outcome of the investigation until after next month’s general election.
Gahler made the same allegation in an e-mail to The Dagger.
“I have learned through sources close to the Sheriff that there has been a concerted effort to ensure the facts of this case remain quiet until after the election,” he wrote. “These sources fear absolute retaliation. For this reason, I must respect their position and keep their identities protected.”
Bane responded strongly to the accusation, calling Gahler’s public comments about an investigation into another law enforcement’s personnel “unethical” and accusing the Maryland State Police officer of distorting the facts of the situation with the election two weeks away.
The two men do not appear to have discussed the matter publicly. Instead, the two have dueled through campaign ads, flyers, web sites, and the media. On the main page of his campaign Web site, Gahler writes:
Harford County Sheriff Jesse Bane’s #3 Commander has been suspended for 7 months and continues to receive full pay and benefits. This while under a criminal investigation for felony theft from local businesses.
But Bane contended that Forwood is entitled to his pay and benefits while under investigation according to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, written into state law. To deny Forwood pay or benefits—or to outright fire him—could result in legal action against Bane or the department, the sheriff said.
“Do I like having to pay him while he’s on suspension? I do not,” Bane said. “But I cannot risk opening the county to a liability issue. Though they [critics] may find it distasteful, and I find it distasteful, it’s the law. And I’m sworn to uphold the law.”
Gahler in his e-mail claimed that Forwood could be exempt from that Bill of Rights at Bane’s discretion, but it was unclear whether that in fact true. He also said that the investigation had questioned Bane’s integrity, but there has been no indication that Bane has been the subject of police investigation.
“The taxpayers have paid the full salary and benefits of an at-will employee during an investigation that questioned the veracity and integrity of his actions and now those of the Sheriff,” Gahler wrote. ” The citizens of Harford County deserve to know the status of the investigation and that their Sheriff will do the right thing for the right reason. We all honor the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBR), the rights of the accused and a full, professional and ethical investigation, but enough is enough. The safety and security of our citizens have taken a back seat to the personal goals of the Sheriff. A $107,000 a year friend of the Sheriff, and an individual exempt from LEOBR rights (if the Sheriff so decides) sits home, providing no
support to our citizens, for over 6 months.”
Bane said the investigation into Forwood’s conduct is “complex” and expected that it would take some time. Bane met with a Baltimore County detective three weeks ago and was told at the time that “a few loose ends remained,” but said he had not been formally notified that the investigation was complete or that any charges were forthcoming.
“The investigation is going to take as long as it takes,” he said. “Whether it takes a month, two months, eight months, nine months. I would have preferred that it took one or two months, but it didn’t work out that way.”
Gahler challengedwhat he called Bane’s lack of knowledge about the current status of the Forwood investigation, and said a separate, in-house investigation by the sheriff should have been conducted.
“In this matter, there should have been a parallel administrative investigation conducted by the Harford County Sheriff’s Office,” Gahler wrote in an e-mail. “We must remember that the allegations in this case involve criminal actions. The position that the accused held has access to all things sensitive at the Sheriff’s Office and all things important to our citizens. The federal, state and local monies and equipment so essential to the operation of the Sheriff’s Office are at issue. A judicious administrative investigation should have been ordered immediately after the allegations came to light. If not, the citizens have not been served well.
Gus Brown, Forwood’s attorney, said he believes the investigation concluded very recently and awaits a decision by the Baltimore County state’s attorney on possible charges. Brown said he was not aware of the findings of the investigation, but said he believed Bane had backed away from the process.
“When the allegation of misconduct first arose, Sheriff Bane asked Baltimore County Police Department and the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s office to take over every bit of the investigation and decision making process to prosecute criminally or not,” Brown wrote in an e-mail to The Dagger. “The Sheriff’s office, the Harford County state’s attorney’s office and the Harford County Law Department have allowed Baltimore County to handle the entire matter – soup to nuts.”
But that hasn’t stopped the rumor mill from churning. On Friday, chatter surrounding the investigation increased and The Dagger received a tip that Forwood had pled guilty to a charge of theft, and now also faced a more serious charge. The rumor proved to be totally untrue.
“That is not at all true. The matter is at the State’s Attorney for Baltimore County for review,” Brown said.
Bane took issue with more public comments made by Gahler, calling his discussion of an ongoing investigation by another law enforcement agency into a member of a third organization “unethical.” But, he said, the election season has apparently encouraged Gahler’s camp to level accusations against him.
“It’s kind of interesting,” Bane said. “What would I have been accused of if this had happened last year?”
Making one of those accusations, Gahler said that Bane’s selection of Forwood as the county’s chief criminal investigator is reflected badly on the incumbent sheriff.
“Under the command structure currently in place in the Sheriff’s Office, the incumbent is supported by his chief deputy and three majors. Each of the three individuals initially chosen by Bane to serve in these roles is no longer serving the citizens of Harford County,” Gahler wrote. “Major Forwood has been receiving full pay and benefits throughout this investigation. Recognizing the shortcomings of the current Sheriff, Major Bodway ran his own campaign for Sheriff and is now supporting my candidacy. Major Dennison retired and joined the effort of yet another Sheriff’s Office commander hoping to bring new leadership to the Office.”