Jury finds that senior police officials violated District's whistleblower act

D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said the department plans to challenge the verdict.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said the department plans to challenge the verdict. (Katherine Frey/the Washington Post)
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By Keith L. Alexander
Saturday, August 28, 2010

A D.C. Superior Court jury ruled that senior police officials, including Chief Cathy L. Lanier, violated the District's whistleblower act when they suspended a police officer in 2005 after he informed city officials that the department allegedly brokered an illegal deal to provide security for the Gallery Place entertainment area downtown.

The jury ruled Thursday that officer Sean McLaughlin was wrongly suspended after he alerted the mayor's office and the D.C. Council that the department had brokered a deal to make officers available to provide security in the area, after the department had rejected requests by McLaughlin and other officers to supply off-duty security in the same neighborhood.

Citing the District's Whistleblower Protection Act, the jury sided with McLaughlin, saying Lanier wrongly disciplined him. In 2005, the police union and nine officers filed a class-action suit against Lanier and the department, arguing that the officers were wrongfully punished for the disclosure.

Last year, Judge Judith E. Retchin dismissed the claim filed by six of the officers. But the jury found Thursday that the three remaining officers -- McLaughlin, Duane Fowler and Martin Freeman -- had alerted officials of the department's wrongdoing, constituting whistleblowing. In March 2005, Freeman was terminated and McLaughlin and Freeman were suspended.

According to the complaint, the officers submitted their off-duty security requests for Gallery Place in October 2004. A month later, while the officers were waiting for supervisors to approve their requests, the department brokered its own security deal with Gallery Place officials, the complaint alleges.

But D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said no such deal was brokered by the department.

"This was a bogus allegation," Nickles said, adding that the lawsuit was a "waste of union member funds."

Department officials said the officers had started working the off-duty security job without department approval when they notified their supervisors, which was the cause of their suspension and termination.

Still, while union attorneys were able to prove that McLaughlin's suspension was directly linked to whistleblowing, attorneys were not able to prove such a case for Freeman and Fowler. Using the two officers' personnel files, D.C. attorneys convinced the nine civil jurors that their being disciplined would have occurred without whistleblowing, based on their prior departmental infractions.

Calls to the Fraternal Order of Police were referred to the union's attorney, Anthony Conti. Calls and an e-mail to Conti requesting comment were not returned.

In its verdict, the jury said McLaughlin should be awarded $6,800 in lost wages and $6,000 in punitive damages. Lanier said the department plans to challenge the jury's verdict.

"There is no evidence in the record to support this conclusion," she said in a statement.

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