BELTON — Two former high-ranking Bell County Jail officials filed a federal lawsuit against Sheriff Eddy Lange, claiming they were coerced into resigning for supporting Lange’s opponent in the Republican primary.

Bell County was named as a defendant in the lawsuit filed in U.S. district court on behalf of the plaintiffs, former sheriff’s deputies Charles Grogan and Mary Farley.

Attorneys for Grogan and Farley said the pair were “constructively discharged” by Lange for supporting former jail administer Bob Patterson in the Republican primary, in violation of their constitutional right to freedom of speech. One day after being sworn in, Lange told the deputies they could either resign or accept a demotion with a pay cut due to their allegiance, according to the complaint.

In an interview Friday, Lange said he did not actively seek their resignations but offered the deputies other positions in the jail hierarchy.

Neither Grogan nor Farley contributed money to Patterson’s campaign or overtly campaigned on his behalf, other than keeping a Patterson-for-sheriff sign in their front yards. But Grogan and Farley sat next to Patterson at a candidate forum in February 2012 and attended a Patterson fundraiser at the Bell County Expo Center, which led to the demotion-or-resignation offer, according to the complaint.

After winning the primary, Lange told Grogan and Farley “there was no way (either) could remain in their positions at the jail” after he saw them … sitting at Patterson’s table at the forum in Salado and then going to the fundraiser for Patterson. Lange also told Farley that he was sorry she “got caught up in the political game,” but “that’s just politics,” according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs also contend “apparent supporters of Defendant Lange were in the parking lot of the Expo Center taking pictures of the vehicles and the people attending the event.”

Lange said Friday he had no knowledge of campaign supporters taking pictures of license plates.

Taking office in January, Lange said he was not seeking retribution but only a reorganization of the jail structure to suit a newly elected sheriff.

“I’m somewhat disappointed in the actions they’re taking,” he said.

Accomplished pair

By all accounts, Grogan and Farley were well respected in local law enforcement circles, having each served the department for nearly 20 years.

Former Sheriff Dan Smith gave Grogan and Farley the Sheriff’s Award, exemplifying the best qualities of law enforcement, and later appointed Grogan to serve as jail administrator.

Reached for comment Friday, Patterson called Grogan and Farley “two of the best I’ve ever seen” in law enforcement.

Before taking office in January, Lange was a member of the Bell County Commissioners Court when commissioners recognized Farley for becoming the first black woman to serve as president of the Texas Jail Association. Commissioners then designated May 26, 2009, as “Mary Farley Day in Bell County,” according to court minutes. A few months later, commissioners, including Lange, presented Farley a framed keepsake of local newspaper articles recognizing her accomplishments.

Later that year, Lange was on the commissioners court when he seconded a motion to recognize Grogan for completing instruction in the National Jail Leadership Command Academy.

According to the complaint, Lange never asked whether Farley or Grogan could serve under him with the same loyalty displayed during Smith’s tenure or Patterson’s campaign. “Had Defendant Lange asked … they both would have assured him that they could have given him the same loyalty and support.”

Grogan and Farley are seeking a jury trial and compensation that includes lost wages. The two also are seeking compensation due to severe mental anguish, damages to their reputations and their ability to earn a living.

County Judge Jon Burrows said liability insurance would cover the county’s responsibility for the legal fees or compensation associated with the case, but declined to comment further.

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