The Howard County sheriff fired yesterday two top-ranking deputies who had engaged in Nazi mimicry on the job for at least eight years, saying their behavior had disrupted the office, sullied the department's reputation and outraged citizens.
Sheriff Michael A. Chiuchiolo overruled a trial board's recommendation that Maj. Donald L. Pruitt and Sgt. Dennis L. Pruitt, 40-year-old twins, be demoted a rank, fined $200 and given counseling. They were each found guilty Dec. 12 of conduct unbecoming an officer.
The Pruitts have been suspended with pay since last April, when The Sun reported that they routinely clicked their heels, flashed Nazi salutes and called out "Sieg Heil" in the sheriff's office and elsewhere in the Ellicott City courthouse.
In his order firing the brothers, Sheriff Chiuchiolo said deputies "must not give the appearance of supporting, even in jest, activities and actions which represent a low point in the history of mankind -- the Nazi terror."
He also lamented that this "took place on duty, in the uniform of the sheriff's office and, sadly, in the building that symbolizes our democratic system of justice that generations of Americans have fought so hard to preserve."
Jewish leaders, who had been outraged by the trial board's recommendation and had called on Sheriff Chiuchiolo to fire the Pruitts, hailed his decision.
"I am delighted to hear this news," said Rabbi Ken Cohen, a chaplain to public safety officers and leader of the Beth Shalom congregation in Columbia. "My faith in the sheriff's department is fully vindicated. Bigotry in Howard County will not be tolerated."
Chief Sheriff's Deputy Charles M. Cave said the Pruitts expressed disbelief that they were being fired when he delivered the order. They have said their routines were part of an office joke based on the old television show "Hogan's Heroes."
Major Pruitt, a 15-year veteran, had been paid $40,783 a year. His brother had earned $31,054 annually after 11 years with the ** department. Reached by telephone yesterday, Major Pruitt said he had no comment and referred calls to his lawyer.
Attorney Michael Marshall, who filed an appeal in Howard County Circuit Court soon after he heard the decision, said the brothers will ask for a stay of the order pending the outcome of their case.
He said he will argue that the trial board's recommendation was final because of the circumstance under which the charges were filed against the deputies by former Sheriff Herbert Stonesifer, who was defeated in the primary election.
Since the sheriff who filed the charges was an eyewitness to the actions, under state law only a trial board may impose punishment, Mr. Marshall said.
Mr. Marshall, noting that the trial board agreed with his argument, also said he would produce evidence "showing that Sheriff Chiuchiolo was predisposed in his decision to fire the Pruitts."
Sheriff Chiuchiolo rejected those arguments, saying he was not an eyewitness to the incidents and could make an independent judgment. He said the attorney general's office backed his position, although the issue has never been decided in a Maryland court.
The sheriff also maintained that deputies served at his pleasure and
he had the right to fire them at any time.
In his order, Sheriff Chiuchiolo told the Pruitts that he could not accept the trial board's recommendation because it would hurt the department and would never be accepted by the community.
Bringing the Pruitts back to the department would "demoralize the employees" who had complained about their actions and make it impossible to "instill a new sense of internal pride and community respect," he said.