AG Morrisey issues opinion on party-switch

By John O'Brien | Mar 5, 2013


CHARLESTON – The Republican candidate for Jefferson County sheriff in 2012 may be considered as a replacement for the victorious Democrat who resigned after a guilty plea earlier this year, though ultimately it didn’t matter.

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey issued a legal opinion on the matter on March 4 in response to a request by Jefferson Prosecuting Attorney Ralph Lorenzetti Jr. The situation concerns Earl Ballenger, a former Republican who lost a close race to Robert Shirley in November.

Shirley has since pleaded guilty to civil rights violations in connection with his treatment of a bank robbery suspect. Ballenger changed his party affiliation to Democrat and asked to be considered as a replacement.

The Jefferson County Commission, however, picked Pete Dougherty the new sheriff the same day Morrisey’s opinion was released. Dougherty was picked from a pool of 16 candidates, The Journal of Martinsburg reported.

“A political candidate’s certificate of announcement must contain, among other things, a certification that he or she belongs to a political party and ‘has not been registered as a voter affiliated with any other political party for a period of 60 days before the date of filing of announcement,’” Morrisey’s opinion says.

“Crucially, however, Section 3-5-7 (of the West Virginia Code) says nothing about qualifications for people seeking appointment to fill a vacancy; it only speaks to the situation in which a person is seeking election to an office.”

It is already the second legal opinion issued by Morrisey over the sheriff vacancy in Jefferson County, his home county. In February, Morrisey said the commission was to appoint a new sheriff to hold the office until the next general election.

Shirley resigned on Jan. 11, the same day he pleaded guilty to civil rights violations.

In June, a federal grand jury indicted Shirley on charges relating to his arrest of Mark Daniel Haines 18 months earlier. According to both the indictment and a related civil suit Haines filed, Shirley recklessly beat and kicked Haines following a high-speed chase on Dec. 27, 2010.

Shirley and deputies with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department began their chase of Haines after receiving a report he attempted to rob the drive-thru of the City National Bank at the Potomac Marketplace shopping center in Ranson.

Eventually, officers with the Charles Town and Ranson police departments joined in and were later followed by the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Department and the West Virginia State Police.

After Haines stopped his pick-up truck in a field across from Files Cross Road, he stepped out of the vehicle with his hands in the air. After one or more of the officers pushed him against the bed of truck, Shirley “climbed into the bed… and kicked [him] repeatedly in the head with a deliberate and sadistic intention to inflict injury on [him],” it is alleged.

Shirley faces up to 10 years in prison, followed by three years supervised release and a $250,000 fine. Chief Deputy Jesse Jones was named acting sheriff before Dougherty was picked for the job.

The winner of the 2014 election will serve the remainder of Shirley’s term, which ends in 2016.

From the West Virginia Record: Reach John O’Brien at

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