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Westmoreland

Westmoreland sheriff's deputy accused of civil rights violations

Rich Cholodofsky
| Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, 6:21 p.m.
Westmoreland County Sheriff Jonathan Held explains a new drug testing program for employees he wants to implement in the aftermath of the arrest of deputy Erika Ditch, 24, of Greensburg, during a press conference on Thursday April, 04, 2013 at the Westmoreland County Courthouse. Ditch and Leann Wechtenhiser, 24, of Derry were arrested on charges of possession with intent to deliver heroin.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Westmoreland County Sheriff Jonathan Held explains a new drug testing program for employees he wants to implement in the aftermath of the arrest of deputy Erika Ditch, 24, of Greensburg, during a press conference on Thursday April, 04, 2013 at the Westmoreland County Courthouse. Ditch and Leann Wechtenhiser, 24, of Derry were arrested on charges of possession with intent to deliver heroin.

Allegations that a high-ranking member of the Westmoreland County Sheriff's Office violated employees' civil rights have county commissioners calling for suspension of the department's chief deputy pending the outcome of an investigation.

Westmoreland County commissioners said they had a letter hand-delivered late last week to Sheriff Jonathan Held in which they identified Chief Deputy Patricia Fritz as a target of the probe they launched last week.

Commissioners said county officials received complaints from a lawyer representing two African-American job applicants who claimed they were denied positions in the sheriff's office because of their race.

A current deputy lodged a third complaint against Fritz, alleging he was discriminated against in the office because he was black, commissioners said.

“Any employee over which the board of commissioners has control who allegedly conducted themselves in this manner would be indefinitely suspended pending the outcome of the investigation. The commissioners join together in their concern over the gravity of the seriousness of these allegations and are calling upon you to indefinitely suspend Chief Deputy Patricia Fritz without pay immediately pending the outcome of the investigation,” according to a letter dated Feb. 9 that all three county commissioners signed and sent to Held.

Fritz, 63, of Mt. Pleasant, was hired as a part-time deputy sheriff in 2010; Held promoted her to chief deputy, the second in command of the office, in 2014. She earns more than $42,000 annually.

Held said Monday he won't suspend Fritz and provided paperwork in which she asked for and received an indefinite leave of absence under the federal family leave act.

“She's covered. She can't be suspended,” Held said.

The sheriff said Fritz late last week alleged she was inappropriately touched and harassed during a one-on-one interview with an assistant county solicitor who was questioning her as part of the commissioners' investigation.

Held said Fritz was in Pittsburgh on Monday seeking to file allegations against the county with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

Fritz could not be reached for comment and the Tribune-Review was unable on Monday to confirm Fritz had filed any complaints against the county.

A spokesman for the EEOC said he can neither confirm nor deny that a complaint has been filed with the agency.

Commissioners Ted Kopas and Gina Cerilli said the county won't confirm if Fritz lodged any complaints against any attorney in the county solicitor's office.

“We take all complaints about harassment seriously,” Kopas said.

Held and his office have been in the crosshairs of the county commissioners since voters first elected him in 2011. The two-term Republican sheriff has been at odds with two different boards of commissioners over budgetary and personnel issues.

Late last year, commissioners asked state legislators to initiate impeachment proceedings against Held.

About a half-dozen lawsuits filed by current and former staffers in state and federal court allege Held and his administration engaged in discrimination. Commissioners have paid more than $100,000 to settle at least four of the lawsuits, including an $85,000 payment in 2013 to a former deputy who contended he was the victim of age discrimination.

Held has maintained he never discriminated against any employee.

Held also faces accusations of election law violations alleging he forced staff to perform campaign activities while at work. Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck last year referred that investigation to the state Attorney General's Office.

As of Monday, there no criminal charges filed against Held.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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