BCI fired new Meigs County sheriff, ex-Nelsonville PD chief in 2019 for unbecoming conduct – Athens County Independent (2024)

BCI fired new Meigs County sheriff, ex-Nelsonville PD chief in 2019 for unbecoming conduct – Athens County Independent (1)

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NELSONVILLE, Ohio — Scott Fitch, former Nelsonville police chief and current Meigs County sheriff, was terminated from his position as special operations agent for the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation in 2019 — and it’s unclear if either the city or Meigs County knew about it.

A letter from the Ohio Attorney General’s office, dated Oct. 8, 2019, notified Fitch that BCI management had recommended his removal as a BCI special agent for providing false information to the agency.

Specifically, the letter states, Fitch lied about conducting an evidence inspection in 2016 and claimed he had a master’s degree from a university that turned out to be a diploma mill.

“Because of the actions noted above, your fitness for duty is severely reduced and your credibility could be attacked any time you testify in court,” the letter states.

Fitch, who worked for BCI for 19 years, successfully appealed his termination on procedural grounds.

Documents from BCI also indicate that Fitch was investigated for dozens of Facebook posts which the BCI said “could be construed as racist,” although those actions were not mentioned in the termination letter.

Fitch had served as Nelsonville police chief for nearly three years when he resigned the post in November 2022 to become Meigs County sheriff.

President of the Meigs County Commissioners Jimmy Will said he was aware Fitch had been terminated from the Ohio BCI, but was unsure if he’d learned of it before the commissioners decided to hire Fitch in November.

All documentation of Fitch’s termination is available under Ohio’s open records laws.

Will said that he has not investigated the termination further and is not concerned by any of the conduct that led to Fitch’s dismissal from BCI. Fitch has been a “morale boost” to Meigs County, Will said, noting that the county did not have a “real active and present sheriff previously.”

“I know our county is better off now,” Will said. “The deputies know it. And there’s been a sense of renewal — a sense of hope for us. Prior to this, there really wasn’t much direction.”

Fitch did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but said in an interview with WTAP, “One of the things is I want to bring full transparency for the public.… I’m hoping that we can change the culture within the sheriff’s office to be more helpful, to be more proactive and that the community will ultimately see that and have more confidence and trust in us.”

It is not clear whether the city of Nelsonville knew about Fitch’s 2019 termination from the BCI when he was hired as police chief or during his tenure. City Manager Scott Frank did not return multiple requests for comment for this story.

The city of Nelsonville has also not yet fulfilled a records request filed Dec.13, 2022 for Fitch’s personnel file and communications regarding his 2019 termination.

When the Independent followed up about the request on Jan. 3, Frank claimed he did not originally receive it. The request was sent to Frank, the city’s administrative email address, the chief of police email address and the city council president.

Fitch appeals his termination

Fitch and the Fraternal Order of Police union representing him challenged his termination before an arbitrator. The arbitrator found that BCI had not followed the disciplinary procedures set out in the FOP union contract, and that even if proper procedures had been followed, Fitch was still able to perform the duties of a BCI special agent.

The arbitration award found that Fitch should be reinstated to his previous position with back pay.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office, which administers BCI, filed suit to overturn the arbitration award, arguing that the arbitrator issued an award “without rational support.” But in March 2022, a Franklin County judge found that the arbitrator had not exceeded his authority and upheld the decision.

By this time, Fitch had served as Nelsonville police chief for nearly two years. Steve Irwin, a press secretary for the AG’s office, said, “We do not comment on personnel matters” when asked about the current status of Fitch’s employment with BCI.

Ohio Checkbook records indicate that Fitch was paid $145,522.16 as a BCI Special Agent in 2019, including over $55,500 in leave payouts. His final state check, a separation leave payout of $515.26, was issued in January 2020.

Fitch was named interim Nelsonville police chief in June 2020 and became permanent chief in December 2020.

Meigs County hire

When Meigs County Sheriff Keith Wood, an independent, suddenly announced his resignation on Nov. 8, the responsibility of appointing a new sheriff fell to the Meigs County Commissioners, all Republicans. Wood had been Meigs County sheriff since 2013.

Will, the commission president, said in a statement that the commissioners would have preferred if Wood had resigned in time to trigger a special election to fill the role.

Will said in a statement that the commissioners received applications from five individuals, including Fitch. Will did not respond by press time to a request for the applications of the other candidates.

Although Will and the other Meigs County Commissioners made the determination to hire Fitch, the commissioners have no further authority of Fitch’s employment. Will said this is part of why he does not care about Fitch’s termination, inflammatory Facebook posts or misleading credential.

“We did our job —we hired him, and we can’t fire him,” Will said.

According to state law, a sheriff can be removed only through a legal proceeding triggered by a petition from voters or a complaint from the governor.

Dan Tierney, press secretary for Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, said the issues at play in Fitch’s 2019 termination likely could not be considered grounds for removal now.

“Our understanding of that statute and relevant case law is that this is intended to address actions while in office, which would not necessarily apply to a new appointee,” Tierney said. “The ultimate decision on whether to retain an appointed official to elected office lies with the voters in that community.”

Falsified inspection records

The primary incident that prompted the BCI’s investigation into and termination of Fitch occurred in 2016, when Fitch was working as a supervisor in the BCI’s Athens field office. Fitch was assigned to conduct an evidence vault inspection before the end of the year.

An evidence intake technician who was required to be present for the inspection told investigators that she and Fitch attempted to schedule the inspection several times unsuccessfully.

On Dec. 23, 2016, Fitch sent the technician a copy of the intake inspection form and asked her to “go ahead and sign off on it” before she left for scheduled time off, she told investigators. She refused.

Shortly thereafter, he gave her another copy of the form that listed specific items in the vault as “were inspected.” The technician was “extremely uncomfortable with doing this because she knew the evidence inspection was never performed,” a BCI investigator wrote in a report.

In 2016, BCI administration accepted Fitch’s voluntary demotion “in lieu of an internal investigation.” But, when the AG’s office changed hands in 2019, the new appointee to the number-two position at BCI reopened the case, viewing Fitch’s actions as a credibility issue should he have to testify in court. This eventually led to Fitch’s firing.

Fitch told investigators in 2019 that he had been under significant personal and professional stress immediately before falsifying the evidence inspection and that in “the grand scheme of things the evidence vault audit did not mean anything.”

Misleading credential

Fitch said on a 2011 application for a promotion that he had obtained a master’s degree in criminal justice administration from Rochville University. In 2015, Rochville was exposed by the New York Times as a diploma mill based in Karachi, Pakistan.

The BCI discovered that Fitch had included this misleading information on his application during the course of an internal investigation.

Fitch told the BCI during that investigation that he hadn’t been aware there was an issue with his degree until it was brought up by a special agent who he believed was “angling for his demotion.”

Fitch told investigators he mentioned the master’s degree on his application because a supervisor had told him “it was the office’s job to judge the credibility of the degree.” He said he never attended classes or took exams, but “only filled out forms regarding his life experiences and paid a fee (amount unknown).”

However, before Fitch claimed to have graduated from Rochville in 2009, the institution’s fraudulent status had already led to the high-profile termination and conviction of a British police forensics investigator. This led to some 700 cases the investigator worked on being reexamined by police.

Although the degree was part of the reason for his dismissal from BCI, Fitch referred to it in his application to become Meigs County sheriff.

The Independent obtained a copy of his cover letter for the position, in which Fitch stated that he had a master of arts in criminal justice administration. Although the institution is not named, that is the degree he obtained from Rochville University.

Will said he did not have a copy of Fitch’s resume and did not know where Fitch obtained his master’s degree.

When asked if he was concerned about Fitch providing a potentially misleading credential on his application, Will replied, “No.”

Will later added, “I don’t know the instance here with Mr. Fitch and his degree, but I don’t put much stock in that.”

Facebook interactions

Content warning: This section quotes inflammatory social media posts which some readers may find offensive.

BCI also investigated Fitch for posting “material on social media that could be construed as racist” or otherwise offensive, according to BCI records.

As part of its investigation, the BCI assembled 164 Facebook interactions from 2015 to 2016 (including post reactions and comments). The inflammatory comments dealt with LGBTQ people, women’s bodies and race. Many of the comments targeted Muslims. One comment joked about shooting Muslims and another used a slur for Muslims.

Most of the interactions were Fitch’s reactions to others’ posts. Many of those interactions involved extreme right-wing accounts that push fake news and conspiracy theories, including Freedom Daily, Truth and Action, and Eagle Rising.

Fitch told BCI investigators that he “likes” posts only for entertainment purposes and that his responses did not indicate endorsem*nt of the posts.

The posts Fitch ‘liked’ included a post referring to a Muslim person as a “co*ckroach,” posts celebrating the Confederate flag, a post about “hunting” Muslim people and a post celebrating the auctioned sale of the gun used to kill Trayvon Martin.

Fitch told investigators “he is not a racist and does not want to hurt anyone.” He added that he removed the comments in question after he was first notified of concerns about his social media conduct.

Fitch said he stopped posting “anything remotely controversial or unprofessional” since he reactivated his Facebook account in 2019.

However, Fitch has made several comments on posts that contradict that claim. One post shows a meme comparing photos of a white Dallas Cowboys cheerleader with Grammy-winning singer Mary J. Blige during her 2022 Super Bowl Halftime Show performance. The meme asks why one is considered “blasphemous” while the other “is as wholesome as apple pie.” Fitch responded, “One is fat and one is hot.”

In other recent posts, Fitch referred to NBA player Draymond Green as a “thug,” castigated Cincinnati Bengals quarterback and Athens High School alum Joe Burrow for supporting gun control, and commented “FJB” (shorthand for “f*ck Joe Biden”) under a post reporting that an undocumented immigrant received a sentence of life imprisonment for “murdering four Americans.”

Asked about Fitch’s comments that were investigated by the Ohio BCI, Will said, “I’m not trying to be mean — I really don’t care.”

Will said he did not find the posts concerning and suggested they could have been falsely attributed to Fitch. When told Fitch acknowledged making the posts to BCI investigators, Will declined to comment further.

Fitch’s term as sheriff will run through Jan. 5, 2025, with the next election to the position scheduled for Nov. 5, 2024.

Additional reporting by Keri Johnson and Corinne Colbert.

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BCI fired new Meigs County sheriff, ex-Nelsonville PD chief in 2019 for unbecoming conduct – Athens County Independent (2024)
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