Hamilton County jail boss demoted, fighting back - Cincinnati News, FOX19-WXIX TV

Hamilton County jail boss demoted, fighting back

(Photo: Liz Dufour, The Enquirer/ Liz Dufour) (Photo: Liz Dufour, The Enquirer/ Liz Dufour)
CINCINNATI -

The first female commander at the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office is facing demotion after a bitter fight with her bosses over accusations of favoritism, retaliation and creating a hostile work environment.

Charmaine McGuffey has been in charge of the Justice Center for four years. She said she's been told she will lose her rank of major and be moved to a lower-paying civilian job, according to our news partners at The Cincinnati Enquirer. 

The demotion is based on a 107-page internal affairs report that describes a sheriff's office rife with back-stabbing and dysfunction, one in which some employees secretly recorded conversations to protect their interests. It found McGuffey favored some employees over others, demeaned and yelled at subordinates, misled investigators and bullied her personal assistant.

McGuffey, however, said she's the one victimized by a hostile work environment. She said internal affairs investigators targeted her after she raised concerns about the way they handled excessive force accusations against corrections officers.

"I believe that this is a witch hunt, and I thought that it was from the beginning as soon as I heard they were launching an investigation," McGuffey said. 

McGuffey, who joined the command staff when Democrat Jim Neil took over as sheriff, said she frequently met resistance from holdovers from the previous administration of former Sheriff Simon Leis, especially when she sought to improve conditions at the jail and reduce violent encounters between inmates and corrections officers.

In recent years, McGuffey has become an outspoken advocate for heroin treatment in the jail and for other programs designed to reduce recidivism. She's also been praised by Neil for transforming the Justice Center, which failed to meet dozens of state inspection standards three years ago, into one of the best jails in the state.

"This investigation, in my opinion, was conducted to taint my reputation and to discredit all the work I have done," McGuffey told The Enquirer. "This is wrong. This is flat-out wrong."

Sheriff Neil declined an interview request, but sent a statement.

"Some serious allegations were brought to my attention," he said. " We police ourselves of any wrongdoing. Throughout the course of a very thorough investigation these allegations were substantiated.  Based on those findings and the unanimous recommendations of both our Internal Affairs Unit and legal advisors it was determined we could not allow Charmaine McGuffey to remain in a management position.”

The report says, "The investigation clearly shows that Major McGuffey created a 'hostile work environment' within the sheriff's office by abusing her power as a 'major.' Major McGuffey used bullying techniques such as belittling, cursing, yelling and screaming at employees."

It goes on to say McGuffey "used her position to retaliate against employees, as well as engaged in favoritism." Investigators also said she was "dishonest" when answering their questions during the investigation.

Investigators spoke to more than a dozen past and present sheriff's employees who complained about their interactions with McGuffey, saying she demeaned them, yelled at them or told them they were bad at their jobs. At least one said he retired early rather than work under McGuffey.

Some also claimed she steered overtime work to deputies she favored and transferred those she didn't like to jobs they didn't want.

Cincinnati Chris Seelbach, the city's first openly gay councilman and a leader in the LGBT community, is upset.

"Attacks of those who report abuse, including a coordinated campaign to smear their careers won't be tolerated," Seelbach said. "As the first woman and member of the LGBT community to lead our county jail, I'm concerned this is more about the old guard pushing back against Major McGuffey's smart reforms than anything else."

The investigation began early this year when McGuffey's former executive assistant, Heather Dobbins, filed a complaint with internal affairs claiming McGuffey bullied her on the job. She said McGuffey often questioned her abilities to do the job and, on a few occasions, asked her to gas up and wash McGuffey's car.

Dobbins said she also was asked to drive McGuffey's wife to a Hillary Clinton rally in Washington Park. "Major McGuffey made Deputy Dobbins' job impossible at times, which caused her mental anguish," the investigators wrote in the report.

Most of the complaints are from 2013 and 2014, when McGuffey was new to the job and leading Neil's transition at the jail. McGuffey said some conversations were tense and some people she spoke to were unhappy about changes at the Justice Center, but she told investigators she didn't yell or belittle anyone.

She said she also didn't bully Dobbins. McGuffey said she did occasionally ask Dobbins to put gas in her car, but only because Dobbins had previously told her she was willing to do it. McGuffey said the same is true for the ride to the Clinton rally, which she said Dobbins provided without complaint.

McGuffey said some of the disagreement between her and Dobbins revolved around Dobbins' refusal to improve her computer skills by learning to better use Word, Excel and PowerPoint. McGuffey said Dobbins told her it "was not her thing."

McGuffey said her concern about use-of-force policies at the jail revolved around changes in the way officers are trained to respond to unruly inmates. In one case, she said, a corrections officer punched an inmate and left him bleeding on the floor unattended, until a nurse eventually came to his aid.

McGuffey said she was upset with the way officers handled the matter.

"I feel I have been targeted because I questioned use-of-force scenarios that occurred and I insisted that we work to remedy any problems we're having with use of force," McGuffey said.

At least three people questioned by internal affairs said they secretly recorded conversations with McGuffey and others. Summaries of those recordings in the report do not appear to include any of the offensive remarks McGuffey is accused of making.

But more than a dozen people relayed stories to investigators about inappropriate behavior by McGuffey. One said McGuffey called him on the phone when he wasn't in the right place to pick her up after a police memorial parade and shouted at him, "Where the (expletive) are you?"

Others who complained said McGuffey scolded them like children, yelled at them and chewed them out in front of others. The comments attributed to her include: "You don't deserve to wear the badge," "You should be fired," "You are incompetent" and "You should be charged with a crime."

The report also includes statements from employees who said McGuffey favored women over men, with one saying McGuffey once told him she wanted to "make sure that females were promoted, taken care of, coached, counseled, and mentored."

Investigators said McGuffey once over-ruled male supervisors who wanted to remove two female inmates from a drug treatment program after the women were caught having sex. The report quoted one of the supervisors as saying McGuffey is "very pro-lesbian" and her decision undercut his authority.

McGuffey, who is gay, said she was not playing favorites and made the decision because it was "the right choice."

Investigators also flagged an incident in which McGuffey was accused of scolding a county property appraiser for driving recklessly and not sharing information with other appraisers, including Darlene Rogers, one of McGuffey's friends and business partners.

McGuffey, whose wife, Christine Sandusky, also was appointed by Neil as an appraiser, said she felt the appraiser was undermining Rogers and the others by not sharing information. Appraisers are county employees, not employees of the sheriff's office.

The internal affairs report, written by Lt. Steve Minnich, sustained the claims against McGuffey of retaliation, favoritism and creating a hostile work environment. It also found she was dishonest, basing that conclusion on her interview with investigators, in which she denied yelling at colleagues and contradicted the statements of others.

"Major McGuffey was dishonest when answering many questions during the Internal Affairs interview," Minnich wrote.

McGuffey said she answered the questions to the best of her ability, noting that many were related to conversations she had four years ago.

She says she was the one retaliated against. After she questioned internal affairs about a use of force investigation she said she was locked out of two staff meetings.

McGuffey said she met with Neil on Friday and was told she would be demoted to a civilian job running programs at the Justice Center. She said he gave her until June 1 to accept the position.

McGuffey's attorney, Peter Burrell, said she is considering her legal options.

Sarah Hellmann, a jail chaplain who also teaches spirituality and art, said McGuffey is responsible for positive changes at the jail.

"This is a clear assassination of her character," Hellman said. "It would be a giant loss to the system for her to be removed or for her to leave."

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