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Clemson clout? S.C. officer says he was fired for ticketing coach

September 27, 2012|By Michael Muskal
  • Michael McClatchy, left, says he was fired from his job as police officer in Pickens, S.C., after he issued a speeding ticket to Clemson University football coach Dabo Swinney. He and his lawyer, Chuck Allen, spoke at a news conference.
Michael McClatchy, left, says he was fired from his job as police officer… (Ken Ruinard / Anderson Independent-Mail…)

They take barbecue awfully seriously in South Carolina --- but they take Clemson University football even more so. A Pickens, S.C., police officer on Thursday said people's love of the sport has cost him a job.

At a news conference in his lawyer’s office, Michael McClatchy outlined his version of events on the night of Sept. 3, when he issued a ticket to Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney. McClatchy said he clocked the celebrated coach doing 63 miles an hour in a 35 mph zone in Pickens, about 20 miles from Clemson.

“I was wrongfully terminated for doing my job,” McClatchy told reporters, according to a transcript of the news conference. “The law should be enforced in a fair manner and apply equally to everyone. I took a solemn oath to do just that and that is what I did.”

The city denied that McClatchy, who had been promoted to corporal a month earlier, was fired because of the ticket. The city said he was terminated for using a city computer to improperly post his side of the dispute. McClatchy called that excuse “a red herring.”

McClatchy said he made a routine traffic stop of a Ford F-150 pickup truck about 8 p.m. that evening. After the officer pulled the truck over, he said, Swinney and his brother left the vehicle, with Swinney saying that he was running late for a radio show.

McClatchy said he issued a reduced ticket of speeding at 55 mph, less than the 63 mph at which he had clocked the vehicle; the reduced citation carried a $185 fine and four penalty points on the driver’s license. While McClatchy was filling out the ticket, he said, the manager of a nearby store told him the mayor had called and wanted to speak with him on the telephone. McClatchy said he declined the call because he was busy writing the ticket.

Then “I was again approached by Mr. Tracy Swinney, who made several degrading comments towards me as a police officer including, ‘You are a disgrace to the badge,’ and that I would ‘get it one day.’ ” McClatchy said. “All this information can be confirmed by watching and listening to the dash cam video.”

McClatchy said he discussed the stop with Police Chief Rodney Gregory on Sept. 4 and was told Swinney had called the chief at 9 p.m. the night of the traffic stop  to complain. “Chief Gregory informed me that he had watched the dash cam video of the traffic stop and that I acted in a professional manner.”

But two days later, McClatchy said, he was told by Gregory that the chief had further reduced the ticket to a two-point violation and a fine of just over $80, which Swinney had paid. McClatchy also released a letter on Clemson stationery from Swinney to Chief Gregory thanking the chief for reducing the fine.

“I have always had the utmost respect for law enforcement,” Swinney wrote on stationery carrying the 2011 ACC Champions logo and accompanied by four photos of the coach. “I wish this situation had been handled differently but I appreciate the latitude you provided with reducing the points and fine.”

McClatchy said his situation at work deteriorated and his fellow employees told him that his days were numbered. McClatchy eventually wrote his version of events, using a home computer but said he made corrections on a city computer.

Chief Gregory’s office referred questions to the city manager who was unavailable for comment. But in a statement, the city said McClatchy “was terminated for engaging in private activity on company time on company equipment in addition to violating several general orders. It is important to note that Mr. McClatchy spent an hour and a half during his police shift at the police station ‘editing’ his blog post.”

“If necessary, the city is fully prepared to defend our decision,” according to the statement. “However, we will do so in a more proper setting, such as a courtroom where these matters belong.”

In another  statement, Mayor David Owens said that the grocery owner called him and not the other way around.  “I never said anything regarding how the ticket should be handled that day or at any time after the traffic stop,” Owens stated, adding that he told Gregory to congratulate the two officers “on their professional handling of the situation.”

“I took no part in the decision to terminate him,” the mayor wrote.

As for Swinney, Clemson athletics officials told the Associated Press that the coach had no comment.

McClatchy, 31, has been a law enforcement officer since 2005 and worked in Pickens for a year, his lawyer, Chuck Allen, said at the news conference. McClatchy has not filed a lawsuit, but Allen hinted that was likely coming.

Within days of the traffic stop, Allen said, “Officer McClatchy was unjustly fired from his job notwithstanding his recent promotion for meritorious performance. Officer McClatchy will now be forced to avail himself of the full protection of the law and I will be assisting him in seeking justice.”

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