The sheriff’s department a cult? That’s the ticket

When perjury indictments of two high-ranking sheriff’s deputies were handed down last spring, a jolly Democratic consultant publicly pooh-poohed the event, saying, “Listen, if the U.S. attorney wanted them to, these federal grand juries would indict Jesus Christ.”

As it turns out, that’s quite a useful metaphor. In the Allegheny County sheriff’s department, we have a charismatic and skilled leader who has assembled a hard-working entourage of true believers. Many remain faithful to his cause even as it leads them into temptations and trials of the courtroom variety.

But in our time, in this place, it is not the top guy who’s on trial, it is his disciples. And the evidence thus far indicates the county sheriff’s office is not a true religion but a cult.

It’s hard to make that distinction just from examining the top guy’s utterances since every religious leader makes claims that could strike skeptics as rather grandiose. We the public, being people of good will, can certainly handle the occasional messianic claim from Sheriff Pete DeFazio as mere boastfulness. When he says he’s not a politician, we know he’s just misguided, and when he claims he never lies, we know he’s, um, human.

Unless a movement’s leader indulges in such obvious excesses as gold-plated plumbing and air-conditioned doghouses, a la Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, it’s easier to see the hallmarks of a cult in the behavior of the leader’s entourage.

In a true religion, you get sidekicks who sacrifice their worldly goods for the poor and have no place to lay their heads. In a cult, while the rank-and-file get pink slips, the favored few get hefty bonuses and free landscaping.

In a true religion, the disciples serve the multitudes. In a cult, the multitudes mow the disciple’s lawn, so to speak.

Witnesses in the perjury trial of Capt. Frank Schiralli say that’s what’s been going on in the sheriff’s department. Deputy Wayne Davin testified last week that on a few occasions over two years, rather than report to work, he and four other deputies were directed to plant bushes and lay many tons of river rock at the home of Chief Deputy Dennis Skosnik.

And while the county trimmed 108 jobs in 2004 to deal with a budget crisis, 10 of DeFazio’s management staff received raises of at least 13 percent. These were the result of a lawsuit they filed against former County Executive Jim Roddey in 2003. Back then, while laying off 13 deputies and blaming Roddey’s budget cuts, DeFazio also awarded his managers these hefty raises, which Roddey blocked, provoking the lawsuit.

That’s the cult formula — the henchman do well, the foot-soldiers do scut.

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Cult leaders also rule by intimidation and punish the less-than-enthusiastic. A dozen or more deputies testified last week that they were pressured to buy tickets to DeFazio’s fundraisers and punished with bad assignments or misconduct reports if they declined. Capt. Donna Best said that Skosnik — the one who got “deputized” landscaping — would “sometimes … yell, sometimes he’d scream. He wanted to know who was and who wasn’t taking tickets … He said we served at his will.”

In addition to intimidation, harsh internal discipline and sleazy self-enrichment, cults tend to foster paranoia. Anyone who objects to the way they function is The Enemy. That honor used to fall to Republican Jim Roddey, and anyone who’d arrived at the same point of view was accused of being a Roddey puppet. Gonzo cultists, having willingly given up independent thought, do not recognize or respect it in others.

But paranoid ramblings about Roddey ceased when Dan Onorato became county executive. The election of a reform-minded Democrat must have confused the sheriff’s henchmen for a while.

It didn’t confuse them for long, however; the office’s power — long ago entrenched when Sheriff Eugene Coon was also the county Democratic Party chairman — is still such that the sheriff’s office was spared the blow of row office reform. Doing the sheriff department’s business and keeping the sheriff in business remain, for the time being, messily entwined.

If they’ve followed recent news, however, DeFazio’s deputies must be aware how outraged the electorate still is with our money-grubbing state Legislature. Surely they understand that corruption fuels the fire of reform. If not, the county’s patient reformers certainly do.

More columns by Ruth Ann Dailey

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Sep. 5, 2005 Column
Ruth Ann Dailey, Columnist

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday September 7, 2005.
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