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Lawsuit: Ky. Sheriff Fired Deputies for Political Reasons

July 16--RICHMOND -- Madison County Sheriff Jerry Combs and Chief Deputy Mike Coyle are named in a federal lawsuit filed last month for allegedly conspiring to fire two former employees for political reasons.

The suit was filed June 30 in U.S. District Court.

It claims Combs terminated Bobby J. McMahan and George Hunter for supporting the re-election of former sheriff Nelson O'Donnell.

McMahan and Hunter claim Combs' actions violated their First Amendment rights of speech and association, Kentucky's fair labor standards and the state wage and hours law by "failing to reimburse ... for unused compensatory time," the suit reads.

McMahan and Hunter were hired in 2007 by the Madison County Sheriff's Department, both serving as court bailiffs, and McMahan also served as a Kentucky Motor Vehicle Inspector.

The two "... engaged in expressive ... campaigning activities, while they were off-duty, to assist (O'Donnell) in his efforts to get re-elected .... going door to door communicating their support for O'Donnell, providing signs, bumper stickers and pins to other consenting persons, wrapping their vehicles with slogans promoting O'Donnell, holding tent rallies and generally communicating their support for O'Donnell to others and otherwise advocating for the re-election of O'Donnell...," the lawsuit states.

McMahan and Hunter were fired Jan. 3, within one hour of Combs taking office, it claims.

"Before Sheriff Combs took office, he conspired with his Chief Deputy Mike Coyle to come up with a plan to terminate the plaintiffs," the suit reads. "The defendants talked to various individuals about wanting to fire the plaintiffs and how it could be accomplished."

"... Sheriff Combs' wrongful discharge of the plaintiffs was accomplished in such a malicious, intentional and reckless fashion that defendant Sheriff Combs is liable for punitive damages," the suit claims. "Plaintiffs were entitled to compensation at an hourly rate of one and one-half times their normal hourly rate of pay for hours worked in excess of 40 hours in a workweek of compensatory time off..."

Combs be being sued for unlawful patronage dismissal, wrongful discharge, conspiracy to violate the men's First Amendment rights and their rights guaranteed under the Kentucky Constitution, violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and violation of Kentucky's compensatory time/pay laws.

Combs did not return phone calls Friday seeking comment.

McMahan and Hunter are represented by Lexington attorney Derek D. Humfleet and are seeking a jury trial, an award of compensatory damages, including pain, suffering, embarrassment and humiliation, lost wages in the past and future, impairment to plaintiff's ability to labor and earn money, lost benefits and insurance coverage, including health insurance coverage, both in the past and future, lost future value of their pension and other retirement benefits.

Ronica Shannon can be reached at rshannon@ or 624-6608.