The gloves came off Wednesday at a candidate forum organized by correctional officers where the Charles County sheriff launched into a harangue labeling two of his opponents "rotten people."
At the beginning of his address, Sheriff Rex Coffey (D) alerted the group of Charles County correctional officers that he wouldn't use his speech to respond to the list of questions they'd given him, referring them to his written answers. Instead, he spent a large chunk of his allotted 10 minutes lighting into Dave Williams and Tim Crawford, fellow contenders for sheriff.
Coffey later said his frustration with what he called the ongoing lies of his opponents brought on the outburst at the event at the La Plata lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police.
"To have to be in the same room with [Williams and Crawford], it brings out the Satan in me that I try to keep down," he said Thursday.
Coffey accused Crawford (R), a lieutenant in the sheriff's office, of trying to smear him during a previous election and Williams (D) of spreading falsehoods and "superfluous bull crap" in the current race.
For instance, Coffey said, Williams recently reported the sheriff's office dumped in La Plata contaminated dirt from its Hughesville firing range. The sheriff said the report was untrue.
Williams declined to comment on Coffey's statement.
"Dave Williams has continuously lied because on the issues, he can't win," Coffey said to the correctional officers.
However, Williams and Crawford said Coffey was the one who didn't stick to the issues at the candidate forum. The event gave correctional officers an opportunity to hear from candidates on topics important to them, and Coffey should have addressed their concerns, the two sheriff hopefuls said. "Those are people who deserve to be treated better. … They're the victims here," Williams said.
Crawford said Coffey's speech exemplified a fear and intimidation campaign he has been running.
"I take everything [Coffey] says with a grain of salt," Crawford said.
The 11 questions correctional officers posed to candidates focused on staffing levels within the county jail, scheduling and retirement benefits.
Williams and Crawford expressed concern about the strain placed on correctional officers who must compensate for positions left vacant. The spots are left open to save money in a time of tight budgets, but the tactic is a safety risk, the candidates said.
"We are working a lot of overtime because our staffing is currently low," Cpl. Ryan Ross, president of the Charles County Correctional Officers Association, said following the forum. "Everyone needs money, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. We do need the time away from the facility."
During his speech to correctional officers, Robert L. Foster Jr. (D), the fourth candidate for sheriff to appear at the forum, said, if elected, he would support giving correctional officers the status of deputy sheriffs, a measure that would take care of inequalities in retirement and salary.
"Working in the jail is much more stressful than working on the street," Foster said.
A primary concern for many correctional officers is the disparity between the retirement plans of correctional and sworn officers, Ross said. While sheriff's officers have accumulated about 70 percent of their benefits after spending 25 years at the agency, correctional officers have only built up about 56 percent at the same point in their careers, he said.
"We have officers that can't afford to retire," Ross said.
Jesse Williams III (D), the fifth candidate for sheriff and a patrol officer with the agency, submitted written responses to the questionnaire from correctional officers but didn't appear at the forum. In his written answers, he said he would support hiring additional correctional officers if the budget allows it and wants to add a trained dog unit to the corrections division.
Coffey wrote that he has requested additional correctional personnel each year since taking office.
"The safety and security of the officers, inmates, and facility are of the utmost importance and I will continue to request additional correctional personnel," he wrote.