Reggie Rachals and David Cheshire
LEESBURG, Ga. — Easton Blanchard may be one of Lee County’s most well-known citizens. The 13-year-old, born with congenital muscular dystrophy and the subject of a number of fundraisers that helped pay for what would be a failed small intestine transplant, has become for many the very symbol of bravery in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
In recent weeks, however, Easton’s name has been in the Lee County spotlight for a different reason. His father, Brian Blanchard, was fired by Lee County Sheriff Reggie Rachals almost two years ago for insubordination when Blanchard told LSO shift supervisor Capt. Jennifer Dunbar he would not report for duty because he was responsible for Easton, who has special needs.
Supporters of former Lee Deputy David Cheshire, who is challenging Rachals for the sheriff’s office, have distributed campaign literature that indicated Rachals had “terminated a jailer because he has a special needs child.” The reference was obviously to Brian Blanchard.
Responding to that charge, Rachals told The Albany Herald in an article that appeared July 8 that the employee in question had been fired “solely on his conduct and his failure to report for duty on time as required of all employees.”
Angered over mention of the incident in the media, Blanchard contacted The Herald and asked for an opportunity to respond to Rachals’ comments.
“As far as the public was concerned, we had let this issue go,” Blanchard said. “There were still legal issues to be straightened out, but we were moving on. Then Sheriff Rachals mentioned this incident in The Herald. And even though he didn’t mention me by name, everybody knew who he was talking about.”
Blanchard said he told Dunbar he could not work on Nov. 13, 2010 because his wife, Heather, would be out of town that day and he was responsible for Easton. He said he’d been assured when he was hired three months earlier that the department “understood” he’d need to make time for Easton on occasion.
But when Blanchard, who at the time was only halfway through his six-month probation period with LSO, did not report for duty the next day, he was discharged from the department “because he refused to report for mandatory overtime on Saturday 11/13/2010 and refusing to obey an order to report for duty on the same day.”
“I couldn’t leave Easton with anyone else,” Blanchard said. “There are only four people who know how to take care of his special needs. My wife had planned to attend a family birthday party, and since I was not on call, we felt it would be a good opportunity for her to get away.
“I couldn’t believe it when they told me (not reporting) was grounds for termination. I’d heard of plenty of other people who’d done the same thing, and nothing was ever done to them. They weren’t even called in and reprimanded.”
Blanchard’s friend Bo Clark, a deputy who recently left the Lee Sheriff’s Office because he said he’d been accused of “sleeping with the enemy” by LSO officials because of his relationship with Blanchard and other former department employees, said he was aware of others who had received no punishment when they did not report for duty.
“It happened to me,” Clark said. “There were times when they called me to come in and I told them I couldn’t and I never heard anything about it. It happened all the time.”
Rachals, meanwhile, said it’s ridiculous to accuse him of being unconcerned for employees with special-needs children. He noted that his brother has cerebral palsy and that other members of the department have special needs themselves or children with special needs. In an email to The Herald on Wednesday, First Christian Church of Albany Pastor Tommy Lowery noted that after he became sheriff, Rachals rehired a former longtime Lee Sheriff’s Office employee, a double amputee, who had been let go by Rachals’ predecessor.
Rachals also disputed Blanchard’s and Clark’s claim that employees had received no punishment for refusal to work.
“I can’t think of a one,” Rachals said, turning to Dunbar. “Are you aware of any other employee refusing to come in to work and nothing being done to him?”
“The only time I’m aware of that happening,” Dunbar replied, “was one time under (former sheriff Harold) Breeden.”
Blanchard accused LSO officials of changing the official report of the incident that led to his termination, pointing out differences in copies of a report filed by Maj. Sandra Pressley-Fordham, who was on duty the night that Blanchard was called in for overtime. One notable change is the inclusion of the word “shopping,” which Blanchard said was an attempt to make it appear that his wife’s trip out of town was frivolous.
“The first report said, ‘... his wife (Heather) had already made plans to go out of town,’” Blanchard said, pointing out the discrepancy on the copies. “The second copy says, ‘... his wife (Heather) had already made plans to go out of town shopping.’ That’s only one word, but it’s a big change.”
Dunbar, who has an autistic child, could not account for the change in the report, but she said what’s more telling was Blanchard’s conduct that was not reported.
“Several people told me that (Blanchard) had played on their pity to get them to work for him, saying he had to take care of his child, then they’d see him out cutting grass for his side business,” she said. “I told them I couldn’t write him up based on a verbal report, that I had to have something in writing, but they said they didn’t want to be responsible for getting him in trouble.”
Blanchard also said he was never given an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) manual when he was hired, as required by law, but Dunbar refuted that claim.
“First of all, we were updating our manual, but all of our employees knew we had printed copies available, plus we had the information on disc,” she said. “And one of the things Sheriff Rachals requires is that we teach our procedures to new hires. That is going on constantly.”
Rachals said the only reason he mentioned the incident with Blanchard (in The Herald story) is because Cheshire’s campaign material accused him of being insensitive to special-needs children.
“That upset me, and I felt like I had to respond so that people would know the truth,” the sheriff said. “I knew all about Easton; we discussed him at our prayer breakfasts and we raised money to help his family. I told Brian when we hired him I had no hang-up about him doing what he had to do for Easton.
“But I think when someone flat-out refuses to report for duty, he endangers the safety of the rest of the personnel. That’s something we can’t accept.”
Asked about his literature that alluded to the Blanchard incident, Cheshire, a friend of the Blanchard family, said many people are misreading his intention.
“I am not attacking Reggie as an individual,” Cheshire said. “My problem with him is the way he runs the sheriff’s office. Whether what he did in this case is legal or not, I can’t say. But as a human, I think it was wrong.”