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Sexual harassment case spotlights 'hostile' culture in Charleston County Sheriff's unit

Charleston County Sheriff's Office

The Charleston County Sheriff's Office Law Enforcement Center. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

A lawsuit against the Charleston County Sheriff's Office is drawing renewed scrutiny to sexual harassment allegations that led to a supervisor's firing and thrust an elite unit into turmoil.

The allegations first emerged in 2017 when officials at the Sheriff's Office learned of complaints of a "hostile work environment" and inappropriate behavior within the Metro Major Case Unit, which investigates drug and vice crimes.

A subsequent internal investigation revealed a troubling culture in which the unit's only female detective said she was subjected to raunchy remarks, sexually suggestive gestures and a supervisor’s invitation for her to share topless photos. The probe detailed a working environment rife with sexual innuendo and ineffective leadership that bred mistrust and tension.

The investigation resulted in the firing of the sergeant accused of sexual harassment, who likened his comments to "locker room talk." 

Sheriff's Office officials declined to be interviewed for this story due to the pending lawsuit but provided answers to some questions by email. They stressed that the agency's command staff have an "open door policy" for employees who wish to report harassment and other sensitive matters. Additionally, all employees undergo sexual harassment training. 

Rickie Biggs — the detective suing Charleston County, Sheriff Al Cannon, two of her former supervisors and other officials in federal court — said fear of retaliation kept her from speaking up about sexual harassment. Other female deputies who reported unwelcome conduct had been labeled as troublemakers, passed over for promotions and transferred to undesirable units, according to her lawsuit. 

Ultimately, colleagues came forward on Biggs' behalf. Her lawsuit alleges that command staff threatened their jobs for reporting the harassment.

After she spoke with internal investigators in October 2017, Biggs said the Sheriff's Office failed to keep personal details confidential, resulting in the private matter becoming "common knowledge" within the agency. At the time, the Sheriff's Office issued a news release about the outcome of the investigation

Biggs' lawsuit alleges that Sheriff's Office officials "created a situation where harassing behavior is likely to continue."

'Minor misunderstanding'

The Metro Major Case Unit is made up of 13 sworn personnel, including a lieutenant who oversees the unit and two sergeants who supervise day-to-day operations. They work in a facility that's separate from the agency’s main office on Leeds Avenue. One command officer, a captain, also works in the building.

Biggs joined Metro in June 2017. She'd previously worked as a detention officer at the Sheriff's Office and then became a patrol deputy after graduating at the top of her class from the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy.

In the fall of 2017, she was a newcomer trying to learn the job of a narcotics and vice investigator.

A seemingly innocuous text message — a "minor misunderstanding," as her lawsuit characterized it — precipitated the encounter at the center of the internal investigation. A report on the probe's findings said the episode played out this way:

Biggs was off work on Sept. 10, 2017, before Hurricane Irma. To thank her supervisors for the day off, she texted them a photo that she thought would be funny: a selfie of her holding a machete and a drink in a koozie.

She would later tell internal affairs that she thought she could joke with her supervisors, Sgt. Matthew McGalliard and Sgt. Matthew Euper, because they had hung out in social settings. She and Euper drank together and had exchanged meme text messages with sexual undertones. 

But McGalliard and Euper weren’t amused by the selfie. They said it was disrespectful. Biggs tried to call them to explain, but they ignored her. She then called Lt. John Plunkett, who oversaw the unit at the time. He assured her that he would take care of the problem. 

At work the next day, McGalliard called Biggs into his office with Euper. She said the sergeants yelled at her, and McGalliard warned her not to be a "problem child." Biggs walked out, saying she wanted Plunkett to be present.

Euper would later say he thought she was being insubordinate. 

Euper and McGalliard then chased Biggs around the building, yelling and demanding that she hand over her badge and gun, according to the internal report.

Plunkett called McGalliard and "dressed him down" for not handling what Plunkett thought was a childish issue, the report said. 

Afterward, the sergeants directed Biggs to apologize to her coworkers during a meeting. That bothered detectives who had witnessed the earlier commotion and thought the sergeants should have been the ones to apologize. 

Biggs said she then worried that her supervisors would target her. She asked her colleagues not to joke around with her in front of the sergeants. 

Allegations of harassment 

Biggs said she felt uncomfortable around McGalliard after that.

She detailed for internal affairs more than a dozen instances of McGalliard making "crude" and "belittling" comments to her about sex and about her body in the weeks that followed the text message incident. His remarks included repeated raunchy jokes in front of other deputies about her car smelling of sex. McGalliard also made gestures of sex acts, Biggs said.

Euper heard some of the remarks and didn't address them. Plunkett, the lieutenant, was on leave at the time. 

McGalliard, who taught sexual harassment training for the military, later admitted to internal investigators that he had said several of the comments. He didn't recall the other statements but acknowledged he could have said them. 

McGalliard thought his remarks were OK because Biggs used crude language, as well, including retorts that referenced male anatomy. 

"He likened the behavior to locker room talk," the report said. 

Biggs said she tried to be "one of the guys" but that her comments were not sexual in nature. 

McGalliard said he was in a "bad spot" because Biggs had sent Plunkett, McGalliard's supervisor, "nude photographs" in the past. Plunkett had showed some of the images to Euper, who described them to McGalliard. 

Biggs' lawsuit stated that Plunkett was her lieutenant in the patrol division when he asked her for professional pictures. He then requested a topless photo, Biggs said. She felt pressured to comply because he was her supervisor and had looked out for her, according to the suit. 

'Humiliated and embarrassed'

The internal review sustained Biggs' complaints that McGalliard engaged in sexually harassing behavior. It also found that he'd made potentially "off-color" comments to a female deputy and had an "inappropriate conversation" with another employee. 

The Sheriff's Office fired McGalliard. His personnel file, released via a Freedom of Information Act request, included commendations but also a three-day suspension in 2007 for lying about which law enforcement agency he worked for after an off-duty crash in his cruiser. 

His colleague Euper was suspended for two days and placed on disciplinary probation after the review. The Sheriff's Office found he violated policies for his role in the office disturbance with Biggs and spread rumors about the photos that she sent to Plunkett. Euper had also denied overtime pay to detectives. 

While his personnel file showed numerous commendations over the years, Euper was suspended 15 years earlier for having an “inappropriate relationship” with an informant who had pending drug charges, according to the documents. 

He retired last month. 

Attempts to reach McGalliard for this story were not successful. When reached by phone, Euper cursed at a reporter and hung up. 

Plunkett, the lieutenant who oversaw Metro, was initially fired for "accepting inappropriate photographs" from Biggs and discussing them with other employees, according to his termination letter. The Sheriff's Office also faulted him for not addressing the sergeants' mistreatment of Biggs.

Plunkett appealed his firing. Sheriff Al Cannon overrode the assistant sheriff's decision and reinstated Plunkett. He now works in the logistics unit. 

Biggs was not disciplined, but officials issued her a letter addressing the photos she sent to Plunkett and her behavior at work. The letter said that while she didn't prompt the sexual harassment from McGalliard, she needed to be aware of her coworkers' boundaries. 

"Although the Sheriff's Office determined she was sexually harassed, she was made to feel as if she was somehow at fault or contributed to the sexual harassment," her attorney, Marybeth Mullaney, told The Post and Courier in an email. 

Officials have not detailed what, if any, changes they've made to address the culture within the Metro unit following the 2017 allegations. When asked how supervisors now promote a professional environment, agency spokesman Capt. Roger Antonio said both before the harassment allegation and generally speaking, the unit's captain holds monthly meetings with supervisors to discuss "the current state of the unit, personnel and activities."

There have been no subsequent reports of harassment in the unit, Antonio said. 

Biggs' lawsuit, filed in December, accuses officials of violating her privacy rights, violating her rights to equal protection, and failing to train and supervise employees on how to handle sexual harassment allegations. The suit also claims retaliation and discrimination based on sex in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Biggs is on unpaid administrative leave from the Sheriff's Office and is afraid to return to work, according to the lawsuit. 

"She feels humiliated and embarrassed around her supervisors," the complaint said. 

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Reach Angie Jackson at 843-937-5705. Follow her on Twitter at @angiejackson23

Angie Jackson covers crime and breaking news for The Post and Courier. She previously covered the same beat for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive.com in Michigan. When she’s not reporting, Angie enjoys teaching yoga and exploring the outdoors.

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