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School board president to replace disgraced Jefferson County sheriff

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- A West Virginia sheriff who resigned in disgrace over the beating of a bank robbery suspect was replaced Tuesday by a school board president, not a Republican rival who changed parties to angle for the job.

The Jefferson County Commission appointed former probation and parole officer Peter Dougherty with a 3-2 vote, Deputy County Administrator Sandy Slusher McDonald said. Dougherty is president of the county's board of education.

Dougherty also has worked as a magistrate and a staffer to former U.S. Rep. Harley O. Staggers Jr. He takes office immediately.

Dougherty replaces Robert Shirley, who pleaded guilty in January to federal charges of violating the civil rights of a suspect who was beaten after a 2010 police chase. Shirley is on home confinement while awaiting sentencing.

Among the 16 contenders to replace Shirley was Earl Ballenger, a 61-year-old Republican who changed his party affiliation just 22 days before he applied for the job.

The move raised the eyebrows of the commissioners, but West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey ruled this week that it doesn't matter how long Ballenger has been a Democrat. He was still eligible for consideration.

Shirley was re-elected in November even as he faced the federal charges, but he resigned and pleaded guilty to federal charges of deprivation of rights under the color of law. A second count, of falsifying records, was dismissed.

He faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine when sentenced.

Prosecutors said the beating of bank robbery suspect Mark Daniel Haines was captured on surveillance video from police cruisers involved in the high-speed chase.

Haines, who said he suffered serious injuries when Shirley kicked and stomped on him, is serving a 19-year sentence for the bank robbery. His civil lawsuit against Shirley is set for trial this fall.

Dougherty, of Charles Town, will serve until the 2014 general election. The winner of that race will then fill Shirley's unexpired term, which ends in 2016.

The commission was legally obligated to appoint another Democrat, but it sent Morrisey a letter last week asking if it could consider how long an applicant had been registered with the party.

The letter from Assistant Prosecutor Stephanie Grove noted that candidates are forbidden by law from changing their political affiliation within 60 days of an election. The West Virginia Supreme Court has determined that such requirements were created "to avoid party raiding and voter confusion," Grove wrote, "and to maintain the integrity of the political process."

That statute, however, doesn't address appointments.

Morrisey's response, dated Monday but made public Tuesday morning, said the duration of Ballenger's party affiliation was irrelevant.

The statute "says nothing about qualifications for people seeking appointment to fill a vacancy," Morrisey wrote. "It only speaks to the situation in which a person is seeking election to an office."

Morrisey, a Republican who defeated longtime Democratic incumbent Darrell McGraw in November, said that if the Legislature had intended to address the issue, "then it would have done so."

Because it has not, the 60-day requirement in election law has no bearing on the appointment process, he said.

"The fact that a person has been a member of the Democratic Party for only 22 days prior to applying to fill the sheriff's vacancy is not, standing alone, a reason for disqualification," he said.

Although Ballenger was among the initial applicants, County Commission President Dale Manuel said he wasn't among the three finalists, "so it really nullified our reason to ask the question."

After choosing Dougherty, he said, the commission took a second, unanimous vote expressing confidence in him.

Manuel said he wanted an experienced administrator and manager to run the sheriff's department and oversee about two-dozen employees. The department already has a competent chief deputy to focus on the police work, Manuel said, but he lives in Berkeley County and was not eligible for the position.


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