Are Calvert County Sheriffs Really Dominion Corporate Sheriffs?

On Tuesday, I attended a court hearing in Prince Frederick to support an activist, Heather Doyle, who is fighting charges related to her arrest in early 2015 for a protest against the liquefied natural gas (natural is an industry term, it is really fracked gas) refinery, power plant and export terminal that Dominion Resources is currently building in Lusby, in the neighborhood of Cove Point. This is the first time that a facility of this kind has ever been built in a densely-populated residential community and it poses a serious health and safety hazard.

Margaret Flowers outside the courthouse in Prince Frederick

During Heather’s arrest, police officers put the safety of her and another activist at risk and used unnecessary force on her (You can read more about that by clicking here.) She filed a complaint with the police department with the hopes that they would investigate it and improve their practice, but instead of doing that they filed a suit against Heather alleging a false statement, which is currently proceeding.

This is retaliation against Heather for speaking out, like an abuser suing the victim of abuse. The question is: why this is happening? Heather’s lawyer filed a motion with the court to seek access to information about the financial relationship between Dominion and the Calvert County Sheriff’s Department. That motion was denied by Circuit Court Judge Mark S. Chandlee.

There is something very unusual, perhaps unique, going on in Calvert County which warrants public scrutiny: a private corporation is fully funding public law enforcement officers. Dominion pays more than a million dollars each year to the Calvert County Sheriff’s Department for ten special operations officers. Dominion also provides funds for travel, training and equipment for the officers and they reimburse the sheriff’s department for any charges incurred during activity related to Dominion. This is not for officers who moonlight during their time off to provide security to a private corporation, which is fairly common, these officers are on duty as Calvert County sheriffs but they are really working for Dominion.

The result in Calvert County is that instead of protecting the public, as most public law enforcement agencies are mandated to do, the special operations officers funded by Dominion are putting Dominion’s interests above the community’s. Their actions go beyond stopping protests, which is bad enough. Local residents report that they feel occupied by corporate police who harass them if they show opposition to Dominion’s facility. Some have been pulled over for having a bumper sticker on their car. Some have been harassed while walking on the beach near the Dominion facility. And some have been unlawfully detained and searched.

Public officers cannot have allegiance to a private corporation and to the public. This inevitably creates conflicts of interest. It is in Dominion’s best interest not to be forthcoming if there is an accident onsite such as a spill or release of chemicals into the air. If Dominion does not want information to be public, but such an accident could harm the local community, will the sheriff’s report it or remain silent? Dominion has been cited and fined in the past by the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to report leaks of ammonia.

In 2014, the head of the special operations team, Ricky Thomas, admitted that they were “forging new ground in this partnership.” This new ground appears to cross a critical line in violation of public safety. As a senator, I would seek greater transparency in the relationship between Dominion and county agencies and provide opportunities for public debate. The health and safety of our communities must be a higher priority than corporate profits.

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