Shelby Co. sergeant files 'whistleblower' lawsuit against sheriff, county

Shelby Co. sergeant files 'whistleblower' lawsuit against sheriff, county

SHELBY COUNTY, TX (KTRE) - A patrol sergeant with the Shelby County Sheriff's Office is suing Sheriff Willis Blackwell and the county for $100,000.

The lawsuit's petition alleges that Blackwell "improperly and illegally" used trustees from the Shelby County jail and county-owned equipment like a mobile command center to improve the sheriff's private deer lease in Panola County and violated the Whistleblower Act by retaliating against him.

Earlier this year, the Texas Rangers started investigating allegations that Willis took the Shelby County Command Center to his deer lease in Panola County. A man found the trailer in what appeared to be a hunting camp on Jan. 5 while he was looking at a tract of timberland in Panola County he was thinking about buying and sent a message to East Texas News about it.

The lawsuit was filed in the 123rd/273rd Judicial District Court on behalf of Derek Barbee, a patrol sergeant with the Shelby County Sheriff's Office on Tuesday. Blackwell and Shelby County are listed as the defendants in the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit's petition, Barbee has had no "negative performance evaluations, citizen complaints, or any other form of disciplinary action indicated in his personnel file" during his time with the Shelby County Sheriff's Office.

The lawsuit alleges that throughout the summer and fall of 2015, Barbee was aware of many times when Blackwell "illegally and improperly" used jail inmate labor to improve his private deer lease in Panola County.

In addition, the lawsuit alleges that numerous pieces of SCSO equipment including the mobile command center, a Kawasaki mule and its hauling trailer, a welding machine, cutting torches, and "other tools, equipment, and machinery" seemed devoted to the deer lease project.

Barbee also alleged in the lawsuit's petition that that set-up tubing from Devon Energy that had been recovered during a theft case investigation was being used to build a bridge on the sheriff's deer lease property.

"Sergeant Barbee also discovered that not only was the  pipe used to build the bridge itself probably stolen, it was also previously used and radioactively contaminated, exposing all trustees and others who worked with and around said pipe to radioactive contamination and/or poisoning," the lawsuit's petition states.

In the petition, Barbee alleges that he personally saw Blackwell transporting Shelby County Jail inmates to and from the deer lease via State Highway 84.

In the second week of January, Barbee spoke with Chief Deputy Shad Sparks about his concerns about Blackwell's possible "unethical and even illegal conduct" by the sheriff in regard to the deer lease. Sparks, in turn, then contacted Texas Ranger Travis Brazil.

When Barbee asked Sparks about any possible legal justification that Blackwell might have given, Sparks said that the sheriff had told him that the deer lease was going to be used for SCSO "recreational and training purposes," according to the lawsuit.

"To Plaintiff Barbee's knowledge, not a single deputy or sheriff's office employee has ever been invited to hunt, train, or recreate in any other away at Sheriff Blackwell's private deer camp," the lawsuit states.

A few days later, Sparks talked to Barbee and said that Brazil had told him they had both done the right thing and that they would be protected from retaliation or punishment for doing their jobs in compliance with the Texas Whistleblowers Act.

On Jan. 25, Barbee spoke to Harbison about the sheriff's conduct and expressed his concerns about the possibility that there would be some kind of retaliation against him, according to the lawsuit. Harbison then allegedly assured Barbee that their conversation was confidential and protected.

Then on Feb. 2, Barbee and two other sheriff's office employees were in the squad room when they heard a loud female voice coming from Sparks' office, the lawsuit states. After about 10 minutes, Blackwell, his wife Ann Blackwell (the Shelby County treasurer), Sparks, and Sparks' wife left the office. At that point, Sparks allegedly told Barbee that he needed to speak to him immediately.

Sparks told Barbee that Ann Blackwell had heard at the courthouse that he had been in a meeting with the county judge about the sheriff's actions and "expressed in no uncertain terms her displeasure and anger," the lawsuit states.

At that point, Sparks allegedly told Barbee that the sheriff had told him to speak to Barbee and tell him "that things come full circle and to keep my mouth shut." Sparks also warned to Barbee to be "extra careful" about violating sheriff's office policies, the lawsuit's petition states.

"Plaintiff was placed in imminent fear that his job was being threatened and that he was personally being intimidated by the sheriff," the lawsuit states. "Plaintiff immediately tried to go see the sheriff, but he had already left the building. [Barbee] felt certain he would be set up to be terminated from what the chief deputy said about the sheriff's response."

Then on Feb. 3, Barbee received a memo from Sparks that said that all of the SCSO patrol sergeants and deputies were now supposed to spend their entire shifts outside of the sheriff's office unless they were meeting with a complainant or working on an offense report. The lawsuit alleges that the memo was intended for Barbee as retaliation for his "whistleblower report."

On Feb. 5, a patrol deputy allegedly told Barbee that Blackwell had said Barbee was "the rat talking to Newton Johnson and Phillip Baker. I have caught him on his game, and I have caused him to be sick at his stomach and that is why he is taking medical leave."

The lawsuit alleges that on the same day, Blackwell asked another patrol deputy what he knew about "Barbee ratting me out to the commissioners and the county judge about command center and stuff."

Five days later, Barbee was contacted by the sheriff's office and told that he needed to make arrangements to surrender his county-owned vehicle and other law enforcement equipment in his possession because he was out on sick leave, according to the lawsuit.

"Plaintiff, in ten years of faithful service to Shelby County as a law enforcement officer with the Shelby County Sheriff's Office, has never known of another single employee, much less law enforcement officer on call 24/7 for the benefit of the citizens, forced to surrender duly authorized and issued equipment just because they were out on doctor-approved sick leave," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit alleges that as a result of the actions of the sheriff and other county officials, Barbee has suffered "the intentional infliction of emotional distress intended to force him to leave his position as a patrol sergeant and respected law enforcement officer, emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, and loss of enjoyment of life."

In addition to legal fees, the lawsuit's petition states that Barbee is seeking $100,000 in damages.

The Texas Rangers' criminal investigation into Blackwell's conduct is still ongoing at this time.

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