Originally created 01/25/00

Sheriff will defend acts on `20/20'



Aiken County Sheriff Howard Sellers will defend his agency's involvement in a union fight during a Friday night edition of ABC's 20/20, a television producer said Monday.

The show will detail allegations by Aiken County resident Gary McClain that the sheriff's office conspired with Tenneco Packaging and two hospital workers to have Mr. McClain involuntarily committed to a mental facility after he made pro-union statements at the plant.

"There will be interviews with Tenneco plant Manager Joe Garrison and with the sheriff and with Gary McClain," said Rhonda Schwartz, ABC News investigative producer.

Mr. McClain, a Jackson resident and employee of Tenneco Packaging, was stopped by several deputies on his way to work July 29, arrested on a 4-year-old misdemeanor warrant and taken to Aiken Regional Medical Centers, where he was drugged and then involuntarily committed to Charter Rivers Hospital in Columbia for two weeks.

The sheriff's office has stated that Tenneco officials complained to the agency that employees were afraid of Mr. McClain, who has worked at the Beech Island plant for 17 years. Public safety then became the first priority, the sheriff said.

Mr. McClain has filed suit in U.S. District Court, seeking $9 million from the sheriff's office, Tenneco and two hospital workers. The lawsuit states that physician J.B. Burley called Mr. McClain's former physician, Dr. David Steiner of Aiken, and asked him how to have Mr. McClain involuntarily committed under South Carolina law. Dr. Burley, who works with Tenneco Packaging, then told Dr. Steiner that Mr. McClain was "stirring up union support at the Tenneco Packaging plant."

Sheriff Sellers said ABC reporter Brian Ross asked lopsided questions during the interview.

"I really hope news magazines are objective," he said. "I was really taken aback from their assumption that we're just a corrupt, back-roads, Southern sheriff's office doing the bidding of the company."

ReachGreg Rickabaugh at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.