Monday, August 22, 2005

LAW SUIT FILED: Police chief claims rights violations, sues city

Police Chief Edward G. Santiago is suing the City of Plainfield, Mayor Albert T. McWilliams and other officials, alleging defamation as well as violation of his rights to free speech and due process.

The chief is also claiming a "whistleblower" violation under the state's Conscientious Employee Protection Act, saying he was "subjected to adverse employment actions" for speaking out.

Santiago, a 30-year veteran of the Plainfield Police Division, was named chief in April 1999. The Plaintalker obtained a copy of the lawsuit Monday (Aug. 22, 2005) at the Union County Courthouse in Elizabeth.

Santiago declined comment Friday (Aug. 19, 2005) and Corporation Counsel Jacqueline Drakeford did not return a call. McWilliams declined comment Monday.

The lawsuit, filed last week, details a tortuous sequence of events beginning in June 2002 when Santiago alleges former Public Safety Director Michael Lattimore, also named in the suit, "falsely and unreasonably" accused him of violating city policies and "otherwise acting contrary to law."

After four other such accusations, Santiago alleges, he answered Lattimore in October 2003 by saying some city policies violated state law and further that Lattimore was interfering with the Police Division's day-to-day operations. His six-point response also said the city had ignored its own residency rules in filling the post. Lattimore had just moved to North Plainfield when he was named public safety director in 1995.

The lawsuit says Lattimore retaliated by ordering disciplinary action and that City Administrator Norton Bonaparte delivered a suspension notice on Oct. 17, 2003. Bonaparte and Personnel Director Karen Dabney are also named in the suit. Bonaparte said Monday he had just received the lawsuit in mid-afternoon. I'm not finished going through it," he said, declining comment.

One day into the suspension, which was allegedly leaked to the media, McWilliams ended it, Santiago said in the lawsuit.

Months passed with no resolution of the charges until a December 10, 2004 meeting at which a settlement was reached, the chief alleges. But starting 10 days later, Santiago's attorney sent 13 letters attempting to finalize the matter. The last one, dated July 22, 2005, included a warning that the chief was about to file a complaint.

Santiago is now seeking payment of legal fees as well as settlement of the December 2004 agreement and an order to expunge the disciplinary charges, called "false, defamatory and libelous" in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit adds another note of discord to the city's law enforcement picture.

Lattimore is suing the city for wrongful termination after McWilliams announced at a City Council meeting on Aug. 16, 2004 that Jiles Ship would be the public safety director as of the next day. The city's special charter calls for a mayor to file notice of a removal with the city clerk to become effective in 10 days unless a two-thirds majority of the council disapproves. The council also must confirm mayoral appointments. Ship was not confirmed until September 2004.

Lattimore filed his suit just before the contentious June 2005 primary, in which McWilliams was defeated by Sharon Robinson-Briggs, who was endorsed by Plainfield PBA President Andre Crawford and Plainfield Area Ebony Police Association President Kenneth Reid.

In her campaign, Robinson-Briggs pointed to police layoffs made by McWilliams in 2004 and a high homicide rate in the first half of 2005.

Among other police woes, the union has been without a contract since December 31, 2002, Finance Director Ron West said at City Council budget talks Tuesday (Aug. 16, 2005).

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: police, lawsuit