Fla. deputy fired after filing to run against sheriff in 2020 election
The sheriff cited court rulings that say a sheriff can fire a deputy who files to run against him for lack of loyalty
KISSIMMEE, Fla. — A week ago, Deputy Marco Lopez filed to run for Osceola County sheriff in 2020. The next day, after spending several hours responding to a barricaded subject as a member of the SWAT team, Lopez was fired by the man he’s running against.
Sheriff Russ Gibson, who is running for re-election, fired Lopez after he refused to resign, citing federal court rulings that say a sheriff can fire a deputy who files to run against him for lack of loyalty.
“As you can see from the three cases you were given, you don’t have a constitutional right to run against a sitting sheriff who has filed for re-election,” Gibson wrote in Lopez’s termination letter. “During our meeting [Friday] you were given an opportunity to review the case laws and understand that as sheriff I must have the confidence that you will effectively represent me as a deputy sheriff and your actions have made it abundantly clear that I cannot.”
Under Florida law, a law enforcement officer who runs against an incumbent must resign effective upon qualifying for the ballot.
Lopez, who ran unsuccessfully in 2016 to replace retiring three-term Sheriff Bob Hansell, acknowledged he would eventually have to resign from his position to run, but argues he doesn’t have to do it until qualification, which is determined in May 2020.
He said he thinks his firing was retribution.
“I believe this is just Russ’ way of saying he’s afraid that he may lose,” Lopez said.
But Orlando attorney Nick Shannin, who specializes in election law, said Gibson is just following the law.
“You can’t have an active member of the sheriff’s office running against the current sheriff without distraction and losing focus on the job," he said.
When asked for comment, a spokesman for the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office forwarded the three cases Gibson used as his justification in Lopez’s termination letter.
One of them was a case last year out of Franklin County in the Panhandle: Deputy Carlton Whaley sued his boss after he was fired, claiming his First Amendment rights were violated.
In that case, Whaley was fired after he told a secretary he was going to run against Sheriff A.J. Smith in 2020. But the case was thrown out in December.
“Precedents ... have established that the concern of disloyalty – and thus, the effective and efficient delivery of public services – strike at the heart of political patronage dismissal cases that involve a sheriff firing his or her deputy sheriff on loyalty grounds,” Chief Judge Mark E. Walker wrote. “The disloyalty concerns arose at the moment when, if not earlier, [Whaley] acknowledged his intention to run for sheriff.”
Lopez said there would be no conflict of interest if he continued to work.
“Our main concern is the safety of the community," he said.
There is one case out of Lake County in the mid-1990s that may support Lopez’s position. Then-Sheriff George Knupp fired a corrections officer who had filed to run against him, saying the officer was spreading “vicious rumors” about him.
A federal jury decided awarded Donald “Cowboy” Thompson, $408,000, the Orlando Sentinel reported at the time.
Lopez is running as a Democrat against Gibson and Mike Fisher, who retired from the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office four years ago. Lopez, who unsuccessfully sued Gibson in 2017 after he was demoted, said he is considering his next steps.
“I’m just going to patiently wait and see how this plays out,” he said. “Hopefully something will come out in our favor.”
©2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)