Last Modified: Thursday, September 27, 2012 3:58 PM
ANDERSON, S.C. (AP) — A local police officer claimed Thursday that he was fired for giving a speeding ticket to a popular college football coach — fighting words in a state that takes its sports rivalries very seriously.
Officer Michael McClatchy issued a ticket to Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney on Sept. 3 after he clocked him going 63 mph in a 35 mph zone in the city of Pickens, located in the same county and just 20 miles down the road from Clemson.
Word of the stop traveled fast as fans who recognized the coach and stopped to get his autograph shared the news on message boards and Internet sites. Their versions of the incident varied widely, with some saying Swinney had a meltdown and others alleging that McClatchy — a fan of Clemson's bitter rival, the University of South Carolina — had let his rooting interest cloud his judgment.
The city of Pickens said it fired the officer because he posted his version of events on a South Carolina message board while still on duty and using a police department computer.
McClatchy doesn't see it that way. He said he only briefly edited the post at work and is convinced that officials were just looking for a reason to get rid of him because he didn't let one of the most popular figures in the area get away with breaking the law.
"I was wrongfully terminated for doing my job. The computer issue is a red herring," McClatchy said, reading a statement while accompanied by his lawyer, University of South Carolina trustee and former football player Chuck Allen.
Swinney was late for his radio show at a grocery store when he was stopped for speeding. After McClatchy turned on his blue lights, the coach drove a short distance farther then turned into the store's parking lot, according to police video footage.
Swinney got out of his pickup truck and told the officer who he was and where he was going. The officer asked Swinney and his brother to sit in the truck while he wrote the ticket, but Swinney stayed outside. Soon fans started approaching the coach, and he even signed some autographs.
Swinney said little during the stop, but his brother can be heard on the tape calling McClatchy a "disgrace to the badge" and saying he would "get it one day."
According to McClatchy, the grocery store manager came outside and told him the mayor of Pickens was on the phone and wanted to talk to him. The officer refused to take the call. McClatchy also said Police Chief Rodney Gregory told him that Swinney had called him at home to complain that the officer had acted unprofessionally.
Mayor David Owens issued a statement Thursday to clarify that the grocery store manager called him, not the other way around, and that he encouraged McClatchy and a fellow officer to "follow the proper procedures because there were a lot of people watching."
"I never said anything regarding how the ticket should be handled that day or at any time after the traffic stop," Owens wrote, 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 of McClatchy.
Gregory referred questions to the city manager, who did not return a telephone call. In a statement, city officials said McClatchy had followed proper procedures during the stop and that he was not fired for issuing a ticket to Swinney.
Clemson athletics officials said Thursday that Swinney had no comment.
Shortly after receiving the ticket, however, the coach wrote a letter thanking the police chief for reducing the charge to a two-point offense, which carries an $82.50 fine and occurs when a driver is going 10 mph or less over the speed limit. The initial charge was a six-point offense and a $185 fine.
"I have always had the utmost respect for law enforcement," Swinney wrote on personal stationery embossed with 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 he had already reduced the charges to a four-point offense at the scene, but the chief reduced it further without consulting him.
In the week after he ticketed the coach, McClatchy said, fellow officers joked that he was going to be fired. McClatchy said he told the chief he was upset because people were posting inaccurate information about the stop online and he wanted to tell his side of the story.
The officer said he posted a response from his home computer Sept. 12 and briefly edited it from his work computer while on duty two days later. He was fired Sept. 17.
In their statement, city officials said McClatchy spent an hour and a half on his work computer "editing his blog post," but Allen said he has not seen any city policy that regulates the use of the Internet for police officers on the job.
McClatchy, 31, has been a law enforcement officer since 2005 and worked in Pickens for a year, getting a promotion a month before he was fired, his lawyer said.
"He's diligent, conscientious — just as he proved on the day in question," Allen said. "You can look at the video. He's very, very professional. He'll continue his law enforcement career because he is a good police officer."
Allen said he is considering every legal avenue for McClatchy, but isn't yet ready to sue the city.