Steve Stephens said he will step down as Wood County sheriff amid mounting misconduct allegations, including a second lawsuit filed Monday against the twice-elected official.
Stephens emailed a one-line note to the Wood County Commission during its regular meeting Monday morning stating that he will retire as sheriff effective Dec. 1. Former federal prosecutor Booth Goodwin, who was hired by commissioners to investigate the allegations against Stephens, was set Monday to announce the findings of his team’s work before Stephens’ announcement.
Stephens could not be reached for comment. He has yet to publicly address the claims against him.
Mark Harris, a county employee since 1984, filed the new lawsuit against Stephens on Monday. Harris worked as a longtime court officer, and Stephens promoted him to captain in late 2017, according to the lawsuit. But 18 months earlier, Harris’ wife, Jan, was diagnosed with cancer. According to the lawsuit, Stephens eventually became fed up with Harris’ repeated requests for sick leave.
County employees donated their sick leave and vacation time to Harris for multiple years so he could continue caring for his wife, but Stephens eventually put an end to the practice, according to the lawsuit.
Harris transferred to the circuit court’s office in April 2019. Stephens responded by stripping his rank as captain, the lawsuit reads.
In September 2020, Harris called Stephens and advised him that his wife was near death. In response, Stephens said Harris had made this claim before, and denied his request for time off. She died later that month. Stephens also refused to allow the department to take up donations for Harris’ wife, as is custom when a department employee loses a family member, according to the lawsuit.
Harris’ lawsuit asks for damages due to Stephens’ alleged intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Della Matheny, a former sergeant in the Wood County Sheriff’s Office, filed the first lawsuit against Stephens on Oct. 22. Matheny alleged that Stephens sexually harassed her and created a hostile workplace. Her claims mirror Stephens’ alleged harassment of a second female deputy.
Todd Bailess and Bill Merriman, co-counsel for Harris, declined to comment for this report. Both Charleston attorneys also represent Matheny, and provided a statement from the former deputy following Stephens’ announcement:
“This is a positive step for current and former members of the Wood County Sheriff’s Department, like me, who worked hard and really cared about this community,” Matheny said. “The Wood County Commission turned a blind eye to Sheriff Stephens for too long. They allowed him to create a hostile work environment that negatively impacted dedicated officers like myself.”
Wood County Commission President David Blair Couch said there was no discussion between commissioners Monday on Stephens’ retirement, as talk focused on what’s needed to replace him. The commission has a couple of options to move forward, but Couch said his hope is to appoint a replacement who will serve until January 2023. This person also could win the special election next year and fulfill Stephens’ full term, which expires in January 2025.
Couch declined to comment on the newest lawsuit. Harris and Matheny’s lawsuits both accuse commissioners of turning a blind eye to the turmoil inside the department. Couch previously defended their handling of the situation.
Couch said Stephens’ move to retire, instead of facing the lengthy legal process that comes with impeaching an elected official, likely saved more headaches.
“This is probably the best that could have come out of this situation,” he said.
The commission will meet again Thursday and discuss the path forward for a replacement, Couch said. The selection will need to clear a high bar, as the county deputy sheriff’s association took aim at Stephens last month with a unanimous vote of no confidence, labeling him a “tyrant” who wielded power similar to an “oppressive dictator.” Couch said the commission’s choice must start mending this fence.
“We hope that we can find someone that will lead this office through this turmoil,” he said. “The deputy sheriffs themselves, and all the staff at the sheriff’s office, are very important to us.”