Wayne County Sheriff Napoleon fires back in jail whistleblower trial

DETROIT (WXYZ) - The Wayne County Sheriff was on the witness stand today in a whistleblower lawsuit, firing back against allegations he retaliated against a woman he fired from the jail. 

Sheriff Benny Napoleon told the jury in a civil lawsuit today that he fired his former Director of Jail Compliance because she broke important rules when her brother was an inmate.

The Sheriff testified that he’s had to fire several employees in recent years for crossing the line, and said Renee Newell violated jail policies when she accepted phone calls from her brother and visited the floor where he was locked up.

“You can’t make phone calls, you can’t have visits, you don’t have a personal relationship with inmates -- it’s strictly business. Because when the inmates see it, when the workers see it, it creates a tension in the jail that’s unacceptable,” said Napoleon on the stand.

Newell says she was actually fired because she blew the whistle on the Chief of Jails, Jeriel Heard. Newell says within hours of telling her boss that Heard had improperly hired a young woman named Tiffany Burgess with jail commissary funds, Newell found herself under investigation by Internal Affairs.

Was your decision to terminate Renee Newell in any way influenced by her report that Jeriel Heard improperly hired Tiffany Burgess,” asked Wayne County lawyer Cheryl Yapo.

“Absolutely not,” said Napoleon.

Chief Heard denies that Burgess was hired improperly, but Newell’s lawyer suggested to the jury that Heard violated the open meetings act when the commissary board approved the hire. He showed the jury meeting minutes from a closed session of the Jail Commissary Board meeting that stated: “Chief Jeriel Heard informed the board that Tiffany Burgess was hired as a Commissary Employee” starting on April 16, 2012.

“Was there a posting for other available and qualified candidates for that job,” asked Newell’s attorney, David Robinson.

“A posting,” asked Heard.

“Yes,” said Robinson.

“What do you mean by posting,” asked Heard.

“To let someone else know about it – not just Tiffany Burgess,” said Robinson.

“There was no posting,” said Heard.

“What you were doing was doing her dad a favor, correct,” asked Robinson.

“Absolutely not, she was qualified,” said Heard.

Newell had also reported to her bosses that she was told Heard had hired his niece. In an email obtained by 7 Action News, Burgess does in fact refer to Heard as “Uncle Jerry.”  Heard denies that Heard is a blood relative, though he does know her father.

He told the jury today that she called him that out of respect.

“Were you bringing in Tiffany Burgess for your own personal gain,” asked county attorney Jim Surowiec.

“Absolutely not,” said Heard.

“Did you bring her in to line your pockets at all,” asked Surowiec.

"Absolutely not,” said Heard.

“Did you get any kickback to bring her in, asked Surowiec.

“Absolutely not,” said Heard.

“Did you care if it was her or someone else,” asked Surowiec.

“Ms. Burgess sent me a resume and she was qualified,” said Heard.

Testimony will continue tomorrow.

If you have a story for Heather, email her at hcatallo@wxyz.com or call 248-827-4473.

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