By 09/18/2003 00:00:00
Ferris rejects chief's plea to be put back on duty
The Ellis County Press
FERRIS - The two top officers of the Ferris police force will remain on paid suspension until an outside investigation is completed to determine if there was any misuse of monies in an undisclosed Ferris Police Reserve bank account.
Despite outbursts and angry protests from an over-filled, standing-room-only crowd at Monday's council meeting, the Ferris City Council voted to continue the administrative leave of Ferris Police Chief Jeff Cottongame and Lieutenant Sherman Swafford.
'They didn't do anything wrong,' shouted those in the audience, comprised mostly of the officers' family members, police department staff and friends.
The protesters interrupted the proceedings several times to emotionally display their anger toward the council, threatening to 'vote you out of office.'
One man, Sherman Swafford Sr. (the father of the lieutenant), threatened, 'I will kill that son of a b——,' after Councilman Victor Burnett made motions to bring in an outside legal firm to represent the city in all matters regarding the suspension and to authorize the firm to use an outside state or federal investigating agency.
The senior Swafford, a Waste Management employee, was later overheard as having said he wished he had worn his white robe and carried his Confederate flag.
Burnett later replied, 'I'm only trying to do my job as an elected official.'
Burnett, the solo black representative on the council, said if the statements were intended
as a 'hate crime,' he would report it to the FBI.
The law firm of Nichols, Jackson, Dillard, Hager and Smith L.L.P. was chosen to represent the city with only one distaining vote - that of Councilman Fred Pontley, a former Ferris police officer under Cottongame's command.
Pontley, now an Ennis police officer, said, 'What's wrong with (using) our (city) attorney?
'Just for the record,' said Ferris City Attorney Richard Wilson, 'I think it's a good idea (to bring in an outside firm) - whatever I say would be subject to me being on one side or the other.'
The Nichols, Jackson law firm in Dallas specializes in municipal law and litigation.
'We serve as general and special counsel for dozens of government entities throughout Texas,' states the firm's website.
An executive session item concerning policy changes and personnel matters regarding Cottongame and Swafford was addressed in open session at the request of the officers' attorney.
Their Dallas attorney, John Haring of Lyon, Gorsky, Baskett, Haring and Gilbert, L.L.P., said, 'I think you have a couple of good police officers here that would like to go back to work.'
Haring said the council acts like the children in the Ferris Independent School District were from another planet or area.
'These officers guard your children,' he said.
Mayor Jimmie Birdwell said his written suspension of Cottongame and Swafford stated the officers would be reinstated at the end of the investigation, if nothing were found wrong.
Birdwell said his personal investigation is not complete, due to several doctor appointments and having to go out of town for a seminar.
'My investigation is fair and square - I put my mayor's hat on and what I do - will be fair,' said Birdwell.
He said, so far, the only thing he has found wrong is the signing of checks deposited and cashed on the account, when the officers did not have signature authority. He said he blames the bank for that, too.
Three councilmen - Scott Born, Jesse Hernandez and Victor Burnett - agreed the suspension should continue until the investigation is complete.
Councilwoman Lori Perkins said, 'Why can't they be put back on duty, since they are getting paid anyway?'
The mayor said when he suspended the officers; it was because he thought the investigation would go smoother if they were off-duty.
The council voted 3-2 to continue the suspension with pay until the investigation was complete, with Pontley and Perkins disagreeing.
The Ferris Police Reserve account was established several years ago for the purpose of depositing donations and other vending-machine type petty cash to purchase supplies for the many reserves Ferris had at one time. Currently Ferris has only one reserve.
In addition to small deposits and checks written on the account, Cottongame used the account to bill out security services, sign and cash checks written to the Ferris Police Reserves and to make loans to employees.
Invoices were generated from the Ferris Police Department offices under a 'Ferris Police Reserve' letterhead and submitted to the FISD for security services by off-duty Ferris officers.
Three checks last year, totaling $12,260 were cashed at the bank and, according to the officers, distributed to the officers who provided the security.
Two of the checks were signed by 'Jeff Cottongame,' and the third was initialed by Swafford.
Swafford said he endorsed checks and cashed them on the account, but so far no other checks have been found.
A Commercial State Bank representative told Ferris City Secretary Alice Holloway the bank would need to know the dates of any other cashed checks to provide the city with copies of the checks.
The city's federal tax identification number was on the account, not the Ferris Police Reserves, and Cottongame stated he destroyed all records concerning the account.
The officers closed the account in late July of this year, after the mayor and city secretary discovered a Ferris Police Reserves receipt for $10, written to a man who paid for fingerprinting at the police department.