Michael A. Chiuchiolo, Howard County's newly elected sheriff, fired two high-ranking members of his department yesterday for making Nazi salutes and antisemitic remarks.
Chiuchiolo (D) went against the recommendation of a law enforcement trial board in firing Maj. Donald L. Pruitt and Sgt. Dennis L. Pruitt, twins who were second and third in command of the county Sheriff's Department. The trial board had recommended that the two officers be fined and demoted.
The Pruitts, 40, declined to comment. Michael Marshall, their attorney, said he appealed Chiuchiolo's action to Howard County Circuit Court yesterday.
"I knew absolutely it was going to happen," Marshall said. "Sheriff Chiuchiolo told people months ago that he had already decided to get rid of them.
"I think the basis of his decision is one part political and one part administrative, which have nothing to do with the charges against the Pruitts," Marshall added.
Jewish leaders in Howard County, who had expressed outrage at the trial board's recommendation, applauded the sheriff's action.
"I am delighted," said Rabbi Kenneth Cohen. "It vindicates the Sheriff's Department and demonstrates clearly and articulately that bigotry of this sort will not be tolerated in our county."
"On one hand, I hate to see anyone be fired," said Fred Berko, president of the Jewish Council of Howard County, "but on the other hand, law enforcement officials who reflect adversely on themselves and on the community should not be in law enforcement."
Chiuchiolo said he made his decision after reading through transcripts of the Pruitts' trial board hearing, consulting officers in the department and listening to the Pruitts at a hearing he conducted late last week.
"The decision wasn't made easily," the sheriff said. "We reread everything, and we talked to a lot of people."
"The most important thing is that they were the leaders of the department," Chiuchiolo said. "They set the example. How could I put them back in there as leaders? Their actions were totally unprofessional."
In a statement explaining his decision, Chiuchiolo called the officers' deeds "totally abhorrent to people who were themselves victims of the Nazi terror or had relatives there, or had friends or relatives who fought to eliminate this Nazi terror."
In December, the trial board composed of three law enforcement officials from two Maryland jurisdictions, found the Pruitts guilty of "conduct unbecoming an officer" for performing Nazi salutes, saying "Sieg Heil," and making antisemitic statements over a period of eight years.
The Pruitts maintained that they were joking, and that their remarks were misinterpreted.
The trial board, which included Montgomery County Sheriff Raymond M. Kight, recommended that Chiuchiolo demote the Pruitts one rank, fine them $200 each and send them to sensitivity-awareness counseling.
At the time of the recommendation, Kight, who chaired the board, said that the panel's recommendation was final because the Pruitts' actions were witnessed by former sheriff Herbert Stonesifer, who later testified against the brothers.
Kight asserted that under Maryland law, a trial board's recommendation is final if the chief of a local law enforcement agency is an eyewitness to an incident under investigation.
However, Chiuchiolo contended that the law "is irrelevant" because Stonesifer is no longer sheriff.
"I never saw these incidents, I was never an eyewitness," said Chiuchiolo, who unseated Stonesifer in last year's election. "It becomes my job to make the final decision."