U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. Renea Thomas was arrested on December 17, 2009, while working as a corrections officer for her civilian employer, the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office. SLCO Sheriff Ken Mascara, at a news conference, accused Sgt. Thomas of stealing money, official misconduct and forgery and uttering a forged instrument. Twenty-one months later, the 19th Circuit State Attorney’s office dropped all charges rather than try the case before a jury of Sgt. Thomas’ peers.
After her first lawyer could make no headway, Sgt. Thomas retained Attorneys Jeffrey H. Garland and Mark Orr to actively challenge the wrongful charges. The new lawyers immediately sought production of Sgt. Thomas’ entire personal file from the SLCSO, including computerized payroll information. These records would later prove instrumental in obtaining complete dismissal of all charges.
SLCSO Internal Affairs Investigator Bill Hardman claimed that Sgt. Thomas failed to report for US Army Reserve duty on multiple occasions during 2009. Under Florida law, reserve soldiers are entitled to be paid up to 17 days drill duty and 30 days of active duty each year. §§ 115.07, 115.08, 115.09, Fla. Stat. The IA investigator asserted that Sgt. Thomas “stole” the salary reimbursements for the days she allegedly failed to report.
The IA investigator concluded that Sgt. Thomas committed crimes without so much as talking to her immediate supervisors in the U.S. Army Reserve. Attorney Garland confirmed through these Army Reserve superiors that Sgt. Thomas did, in fact, report for all duty days for which she was ordered to report. The defense immediately listed these superiors as witnesses.
The IA investigator did speak with two civilian employees of the US Army. These civilian employees violated Army regulations by discussing employment-related information with an unauthorized person, i.e.: the IA investigator. See 32 CFR §516. Army regulations required that the IA investigator’s inquiry be referred to Army legal counsel or to the soldier’s chain of command. If the IA investigator had observed these Army regulations, he would have been led directly to the records and evidence which would have shown that Sgt. Thomas was an honest and reliable soldier who was properly following orders and procedures.
The IA investigator further concluded that Sgt. Thomas “stole” benefits for appearing for a required medical readiness examination. The IA investigator was unaware that medical readiness is a required reserve activity for which pay reimbursement is required. See 38 USC §4303(13) (“The term “service in the uniformed services” means the performance of duty on a voluntary or involuntary basis in a uniformed service…and includes active duty, active duty for training, initial active duty for training, inactive duty for training…a period for which a person is absent from a position of employment for the purpose of examination to determine the fitness of the person to perform any such duty…”).
The IA investigator failed to carefully look at the SLCSO personnel records. If he had done so, he would have found orders for Sgt. Thomas to appear for the medical readiness examination, as well as verification that she had actually attended. Reserve Health Readiness Program voucher #605464 stated on its face: “Army reserve soldiers who are “no-shows” are subject to actions under Article 92 USMJ…It is the responsibility of reservists to maintain their medical and dental fitness.”
The IA investigator concluded that Sgt. Thomas had “forged” a duty notice for 9/19/09 – 9/20/09. As already noted, the IA investigator never spoke to the soldier’s superiors. If he had, he would have been told that all members of the reserve unit had been authorized to use the form, which was made available to them for that express purpose.
The defense investigation found that Sgt. Thomas was being ordered to “inprocess” into a new unit in Atlanta, Georgia. The date of this 3-day inprocessing had already changed twice. However, Sgt. Thomas could not give precise notice, because she did not know what dates were going to be selected. She gave a notice to her immediate superior, a jail lieutenant for the SLCSO, showing 9/19/09 – 9/20/09, which was her best estimate at the time.
On 9/16/09, Sgt. Thomas was notified by e-mail to report immediately to the West Palm Beach airport to fly to Atlanta. She was unable to reach the jail lieutenant to notify him of the newest inprocessing dates. Sgt. Thomas was in Atlanta when the jail lieutenant turned in the duty notice form to the SLCSO personnel office.
Sgt. Thomas had given the best notice she could under the circumstances. She would, in the final analysis, be faulted by the SLCSO either for failing to give exact notice, or failing to give notice at all. Either way, the IA investigator’s assertion of wrongdoing was spurious and unsupported by evidence. After all, SLCSO General Order 13.02 §IX required only that the soldier act in good faith: “Advance notice should be given at the earliest convenience.” In this case, the evidence showed that Sgt. Thomas attempted to give notice “at the earliest convenience”, which is when she found out that she was required to fly to Atlanta on the morning of 9/16/09.
Sgt. Thomas was facing four felony charges; grand theft, official misconduct, uttering a forged instrument and forgery. Each charge required proof of intent to defraud.
The lackadaisical IA investigator should have found the orders/directives (signed by military officers) requiring the soldiers to report for duty on each day she was alleged not to have reported. The IA investigator would have had to look no further than Sgt. Thomas’ SLCSO personnel file for these documents. There can be no intent to defraud when you are ordered to be at duty…and report for duty as ordered.
Sgt. Thomas was first ordered to inprocess in Atlanta for three days beginning 7/10/09. She had properly given notice to the SLCSO, but was unable to inprocess at that time due to her daughter’s illness. Sgt. Thomas timely reported the illness and was told by her military superiors that the inprocessing would be rescheduled.
The IA investigator, without consulting with Sgt. Thomas’ military superiors, accused her of defrauding the SLCSO for these three days of active service payments. If he had made even a rudimentary inquiry, the IA investigator would have learned that Army regulations allow a reservist to reschedule training “due to verified medical problems…, [which] may, in the judgment of the unit commander, justify” rescheduling. AR600-8-10. Here, Sgt. Thomas gave proper notice of a medical problem, was excused, and the training was rescheduled.
Sgt. Thomas had discussed such situations with a higher level supervisor at the St. Lucie County Jail, Cpt. Jimmy York. Cpt. York advised that getting excused from military duty due to illness was the same as getting sick while on vacation. You don’t get your vacation days back because you were too sick to use them; and you don’t get your military days back because you were excused from service by the military in accordance with military regulations. Once you are on military leave, you belong to the military.
While inprocessing on the rescheduled date in Atlanta, Sgt. Thomas developed a medical condition which prevented her from returning to work. The condition was documented by doctors at the St. Lucie Medical Center in Port St. Lucie, who recommended on 9/21/09 that Sgt. Thomas not return to work before 9/25/09.
Under Florida law, a reserve soldier, who is unable to return to work on account of a qualifying illness or condition, is entitled to full payment of his/her regular wages until able to return to work. See §115.09 ( “Active military service means…active duty with any branch of the armed services…and shall include the period during which a person in military service is absent from duty on account of sickness, wounds, leave or other lawful cause.”) The Florida Attorney General’s Office has issued a formal opinion that a reservist’s right to reimbursement is mandatory, and that the statute “operates as a prohibition against it being done in any other way”. AGO 98-43 (7/14/98). The Attorney General’s Opinion concluded that no state agency, including, for example, the SLCSO, may reduce or offset the compensation to which the reservist is entitled under §115.09:
[A] public employer [must] pay full public salaries to their employees on military leave during these statutorily recognized periods of absence from their public employment regardless of any other compensation from the military or other source.
If Sgt. Thomas had been motivated by greed, she would have requested to be paid military time for those days she was too sick to return to work at the SLCSO. Here, Sgt. Thomas was entitled to request such a reimbursement, but never did.
The IA investigator falsely accused Sgt. Thomas of stealing military benefits for 9/19/09 – 9/20/09, when she had been scheduled to work. Sgt. Thomas’ schedule was changed because of her erroneous belief that she was to be inprocessed at this time. She was actually inprocessed 9/16/09 – 9/18/09.
The IA investigator leveled this scandalous accusation against Sgt. Thomas without so much as discussing the matter with SLCSO finance director, Toby Long. At a deposition, Mr. Long explained that Sgt. Thomas received no pay for 9/19/09 – 9/20/09.
Mr. Long’s testimony completely contradicted the IA investigator’s false accusation. In the final analysis, it appears that the IA investigator jumped to an unsupportable conclusion based upon ignorance or an incomplete review of payroll records, and without requesting assistance from the finance director. This unsupportable accusation seemed to result from something other than an impartial review of the “evidence”.
Circuit Judge Lawrence Mirman had scheduled jury selection to begin during the September 6 docket. After all, the case had been “pending” for 21 months.
The State Attorney’s office elected to unconditionally drop all charges on 9/1/11. There were no deals, agreements or diversion programs.
The SLCSO has refused to reinstate Sgt. Thomas into her position at the jail. The refusal to reinstate Sgt. Thomas appears to be a clear and direction violation of rights as a soldier under federal law. Unless the SLCSO acts promptly to comply with federal law, it is anticipated that Sgt. Thomas will file suit to recover her damages. Sgt. Thomas would sue to recover lost pay and benefits, reinstatement into her position, and damages for disparaging her character.
Every reserve soldier, sailor and airman has special rights protected by State and federal law. The security of our Country depends upon the willingness of these brave souls to serve in harm’s way. We salute you! Act quickly to protect your jobs and your futures when ignorant employers seek to penalize you for your military service.