York County sheriff denies claims of jail coverup, whisteblower firing

York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant has denied all claims of a cover-up made by a former York County Detention Center jailer who was fired after complaining about how an accused double murderer who killed himself in jail was treated, court records show.

Bryant, sheriff for 18 years, wants the lawsuit filed by Michael Billioni thrown out. But the federal judge in charge of the case has ordered the two sides to discuss the lawsuit within the next two weeks.

Prosecutors filed no charges against any jailers, saying Joshua Grose was combative, tried to drown himself in a toilet, and repeatedly asked officers to kill him. Lawyers for the sheriff, who runs the jail, deny Billioni’s allegations that other officers used excessive force when Grose was restrained.

The response comes a year after Grose allegedly ran over and killed his stepmother and a neighbor on Oct. 18, 2013, in a neighborhood outside Rock Hill. Grose was combative with officers and committed suicide Oct. 20, 2013, by repeatedly banging his head against a wall despite wearing a protective football helmet.

Billioni, who was not on duty when Grose died, alleges that he was fired soon after he saw videotape of Grose being restrained because he told State Law Enforcement Division investigators looking into Grose’s death that he was distraught about the suspect allegedly being punched. Billioni also discussed the incident with his wife, who worked for WCNC, the NBC affiliate in Charlotte. The television station soon afterward asked for the videotape under state Freedom of Information Act laws.

Bryant has denied any cover-up, saying he made sheriff’s office documents, videotapes, and employees available to state investigators looking into Grose’s death at the jail. More, in the response to Billioni’s lawsuit, sheriff’s office lawyer Chris Johnson of Columbia wrote that three top sheriff’s office officials recommended that Billioni be fired for violating sheriff’s office policies. Bryant then approved the firing.

Billioni claims his free speech rights were violated, and that the sheriff’s office violated state law designed to protect whisteblowers. But the response to the lawsuit denies Billioni’s claims that he did not disclose confidential information. The response further denies Billioni’s claims that he spoke out as a citizen rather than for personal interest.

Johnson, the lawyer for the sheriff’s office, also denies any claims of retaliation and rejects Billioni’s allegations that his firing would create a “chilling effect” on other employees who might speak out.

Lawyers in the case could not be reached Friday, and sheriff’s officials declined to comment.

South Carolina’s chief federal judge, Joseph Anderson, has not ruled on Bryant’s request that the lawsuit be dismissed. A court scheduled calls for a trial in September or October 2015.