Four deputies filed suit yesterday against Arlington Sheriff James A. Gondles Jr., asking the court to bar him from demoting or firing them for supporting his opponent in the recent election.

The deputies are also seeking $1.4 million in damages "for violation of their constitutional rights" to free speech.

"They believe that they are being singled out because of their participation in the campaign," said Thomas D. Pearson Jr., an attorney for the four deputies. "They've got themselves in a no-win situation solely because they expressed their right to take sides."

On Monday, Gondles gave nine of 21 deputies who signed statements criticizing him during the campaign the choice of being fired or of being demoted to the department's lowest rank -- a correctional officer in the jail -- without loss of pay.

The four deputies who sued refused the demotion. The five others agreed to be demoted, said Chief Deputy Thomas Faust.

U.S. District Judge James C. Cacheris is scheduled to hear a request today to issue a temporary restraining order to stop the sheriff from firing the deputies who did not accept demotions. The suit seeks a permanent injunction against the dismissals and demotions.

Gondles could not be reached for comment yesterday but his attorney, William D. Dolan, said that the nine deputies' published criticism of the sheriff made it impossible for him to trust them in their current positions.

They are "not being punished for taking part in a political action," said Dolan. "{Their} action in politics dealt with a statement that there was no integrity in the office, and {they're} involved in a close relationship with the sheriff."

Gondles, a Democrat, said on Monday that he gave the nine deputies the ultimatum not simply because they supported his Republican opponent, former chief deputy Ronald B. Hager, but because their published statements accused him of mismanagement and "abuse of power."

He said the nine held "positions of confidence" and that four of them were members of his management-level staff. He gave them 48 hours to make their decisions. "This is a way for me to say that the administration of my office is a team and you've got to be a team player," Gondles said at the time.

On Tuesday, Gondles held meetings with six other deputies who also had signed statements, but were in lower positions. He told them they could remain in their positions if they believed they could carry out their jobs professionally.

Some of the nine deputies given the ultimatum handle confidential departmental information about employes and inmates. Some also worked closely with the sheriff on investigations. Dolan said a lack of trust between the deputies and the sheriff would hinder their work.

The sheriff is given wide discretion by the Virginia Constitution in the way he runs his office. Unlike the directors of most county agencies, the sheriff is independent of the county board. He has broad powers to hire, fire or reassign employes, according to lawyers familiar with the office.

Dolan and Kevin Appel, Arlington's deputy treasurer and a lawyer who has lectured on political firings, said the courts have upheld a sheriff's right to dismiss management-level staff members and others in sensitive positions.

In the suit, the deputies argue that the sheriff's ultimatum was "solely in response to {their} exercise of their constitutionally protected interest in freedom of expression" and therefore the action was a "deprivation of constitutional rights . . . . "

It says that no deputy had shown that he was incapable of or unwilling to carry out his job in a proper manner and that the choice of demotion "involves the loss of seniority, status, benefits and possible losses in pay . . . . "

The suit seeks to bar "further retaliatory actions" against the deputies because of their political actions and asks that they be allowed to keep their current jobs. The suit asks $100,000 for each deputy for unspecified compensatory damages and $1 million total in punitive damages.

The four deputies who filed suit are Sgt. Margaret Ann Pierson, a shift supervisor with the department for six years; Sgt. Richard Charles Tanner, a shift supervisor and five-year member; Robin Faye Whitmore, a classification officer with six years of experience, and Sean Eldon Whitmore, a five-year member who works as an investigator and court security officer.