A former St. Tammany Parish sheriff’s reserve deputy says he was pressured by his supervisors to throw his support behind Sheriff Jack Strain and told that if he didn’t, he should leave the Sheriff’s Office.
Jeremiah Abbott, an eight-year veteran of the department, said Wednesday that he was summoned to a meeting with his supervisor, Maj. Brad Hassert, in February. In that meeting, which Abbott recorded, Hassert asked Abbott if he had been campaigning for Strain’s opponent in the October election, Slidell Police Chief Randy Smith.
“Some people, in this agency, have heard rumors that you are perhaps actively campaigning for Chief Smith,” Hassert says. “If you are, I’m asking, it might be a good time for you to go to work for Chief Smith.”
On the tape, Abbott challenges Hassert and asks why his accusers are not in the room with them.
Hassert replies by saying he has spoken to only one person about it and suggests that person is Strain, saying the person in question is “someone running for sheriff.”
Strain, Smith and retired Navy Chief Petty Officer Jennifer Werther are the only announced candidates for the office.
On the tape, Hassert says he was asked to call in Abbott and a few other deputies and talk to them.
In the meeting, Abbott denied campaigning for Smith but allowed that he had talked to other deputies about the election.
Strain, in an interview Wednesday, denied he had ever asked Hassert to speak to Abbott about his political activities.
“I did not instruct Brad Hassert to call him,” Strain said. “But I am proud of Brad Hassert for doing it.”
He also denied demanding that employees be loyal to him, insisting only that they be loyal to the agency.
In Louisiana, sheriff’s deputies serve at the will of the sheriff, meaning they are not protected by the civil service rules that typically protect city police officers. Many sheriffs expect deputies and other employees to support them politically.
While denying that he demanded loyalty, Strain said he does solicit political support from his employees, asking each one for their vote.
“I hope all 750 employees vote for me,” he said Wednesday. “I hope I’ve earned that. But I have not intimidated any of them.”
Strain said the issue revolved around rumors that Abbott was campaigning for Smith while wearing his sheriff’s uniform. In fact, department policy prohibits deputies from campaigning for anyone while wearing the uniform, Strain said.
Abbott said the pressure from his supervisor, plus frustration he had over a November incident with his ex-wife, with whom he is engaged in a custody battle, convinced him to resign his reserve commission at the Sheriff’s Office.
In that earlier incident, his ex-wife was arrested on an aggravated battery count after she ran over Abbott’s foot with her car during an argument, according to police. While she was in the St. Tammany Parish Jail, a man with whom she spoke on the phone said he would do a “drive-by” on Abbott’s house and that he wanted to “hide his body.”
Those comments, recorded on the jail’s phone system, were intercepted by another deputy, Daniel Gallavan, who reported it to his superiors. But no charges were filed and no report was generated, which angered both Abbott and Gallavan.
Strain said Abbott was hoping to use an investigation by the Sheriff’s Office as leverage in his custody battle.
But when detectives listened to the taped phone calls, they dismissed them as nothing more than frustration. Lindsay Abbott’s charge has been reduced from aggravated battery, a felony, to negligent injuring, a misdemeanor, according to her attorney, Rene Frederick.
Abbott resigned from the Sheriff’s Office on Feb. 28, he said. Four days later, Smith hired him as a reserve officer in Slidell. Gallavan, who also resigned from the Sheriff’s Office, said his hiring by the Slidell Police Department was “in process.”
Strain said all the allegations reeked of election-year politics but refused to accuse Smith of being complicit — by way of a left-handed compliment.
“Randy is not smart enough to engineer this,” he said. “But he’s the beneficiary.”
Strain also aimed some fiery rhetoric at Louisiana United International, a Slidell-based civil rights group led by Belinda Parker Brown that has vociferously criticized Strain in the past, and Terry King, another frequent Strain critic.
“This is being engineered by Belinda Parker Brown and Terry King, who love their 15 minutes of fame and want more of it,” Strain said.
Neither Abbot nor Gallavan has filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office, unlike Clinton Matthews, another former deputy who sued the Sheriff’s Office in federal court after he claimed his superiors forced him to buy a ticket to a Strain fundraising gala. That suit was settled in 2013.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.