Post details: Trooper wins $450,000 free speech case

Trooper wins $450,000 free speech case

English (US)  March 2nd, 2006 by admin ( Email )

By Gale Courey Toensing

The federal court decision is “a fabulous victory for the free speech rights not only of state troopers and law enforcement personnel, but for all government employees who have long suffered under the choke of the state’s control over their speech,” Attorney Karen Lee Torre said.

HARTFORD, Conn. _ Connecticut State Police employees and other government employees can now speak out on matters of public concern without obtaining prior permission from administrators.

A precedent-setting federal court ruling that the Connecticut State Police (CSP) media policy violates the First Amendment was finalized last month when a $450,000 settlement was issued to Trooper Mark Lauretano of Salisbury. The media policy dictates what state police employees are allowed to say to the press and public.

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U.S. District Court Judge Dominic Squatrito issued a permanent injunction prohibiting the use of sections of the CSP media policy almost a year-and–a half ago. The case was finalized when the state issued the settlement payment in January.

“It’s a landmark decision. It’s a huge victory because it will affect all federal, state, county, and municipal agencies nationwide, and they’ll all have to conform their media policies to the injunction,” Lauretano said late Tuesday night.

“It’s going to benefit all of my law enforcement colleagues throughout the country, and that makes me feel really good,” Lauretano said.

Lauretano challenged the CSP gag policy in a civil rights lawsuit against the public safety agency’s top brass. The civil rights action was launched in 1999 after Lauretano was disciplined for his investigation of a rape complaint by a black scholarship student against two white classmates at the Hotchkiss School, a prestigious private prep school in Salisbury.

Judge Squatrito issued his decision in September 2004, after nine days of hearings in late 2002 and early 2003. The decision upholds Lauretano’s claims that former Commission of Public Safety Arthur Spada, retired Col. John Bardelli, retired Lt. Edmund C. Brunt, retired Col. Timothy Barry and retired Litchfield County State’s Attorney Frank Maco violated Lauretano’s rights to free speech and association, and committed conspiracy, unlawful retaliation, prior restraint on speech, suppression of speech, and a discriminatory application of the state police media policy.

Squatrito’s permanent injunction prohibits the public safety commissioner from requiring employees to obtain prior permission to speak when they are not on duty or representing the department, when they are not revealing confidential information as defined in the CSP operating manual, and when they are speaking about a matter of public concern.

Under the Civil Rights Act, Lauretano was entitled to have the state reimburse him for all his legal fees and court costs. It has taken the state a year-and-a-half to settle the judge’s ruling and issue the payment.

Lauretano expressed satisfaction Tuesday at the outcome of the long and complicated case.

“I feel very happy. I feel vindicated that I won the case. The most important thing is that the permanent injunction will stay in place. It’s written in stone and it will always be there. The decision guarantees a police officer can speak out about issues of public concern like corruption, misconduct, and faulty investigations without having to get permission and without being threatened with the loss of his or her job,” Lauretano said.

Lauretano said he did not file the lawsuit for money.

“It was the principle of the matter. I was lied about and smeared by my superior officers, who violated their own policies with impunity while threatening me with discipline and termination of employment if I attempted to defend myself or inform the public of the actual events surrounding the Hotchkiss sexual assault,” Lauretano said.

Lauretano has started work on a book that he says will present “a coherent history of what occurred in the investigation and subsequent misconduct and cover up by the Litchfield County prosecutor’s office, the Western District Crime Squad, the CSP internal affairs unit and the management at the public safety department.”

Lauretano praised New Haven Attorney Karen Lee Torre for her work on his case. Torre, who specializes in civil rights law, has a long record of legal victories in defense of whistleblower cops and other law enforcement personnel who expose corruption in their agencies.

In one of her most famous cases, which parallels the Lauretano case, Torre won a $2.7 million lawsuit in 1998 for investigator Greg Dillon against the late Chief State's Attorney John Bailey for retaliating against Dillon for exposing FBI misconduct. The state later settled the case out of court for $1.5 million.

Torre could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but in September 2004 she described the judge’s decision as “a fabulous victory for the free speech rights not only of state troopers and law enforcement personnel, but for all government employees who have long suffered under the choke of the state’s control over their speech.”

The final settlement closes the book on a saga that began almost exactly nine years ago in the controversial and widely publicized Hotchkiss sexual assault case. A then-14-year-old black boy from Brooklyn on a full academic scholarship for inner city students accused two older white boys that he knew and identified of raping him in his fourth floor room in the school’s Tinker Dormitory on Feb. 28, 1997. The boy soon showed signs of stress, left school on a medical leave and did not return for the remainder of the semester.

In August 1997 as the boy was preparing to return to Hotchkiss, he broke down and told his mother, Joy McIntosh, about the rape. As Salisbury’s resident trooper, Lauretano investigated the complaint and prepared an arrest warrant that was approved by his superior officers. He pressed for charges against the two boys, but former State’s Attorney Frank Maco refused to sign the warrant. The case was transferred from Lauretano to the Western District Crime Unit in January 1998 and closed by Maco at the end of that year without any arrests being made.

Lauretano filed the lawsuit in response to an internal affairs investigation and disciplinary actions in which he was accused of mishandling the case and charged with eight violations of CSP regulations. He was suspended for two months without pay, removed from his 10-year job as Salisbury resident trooper, and transferred out of the district.

The internal affairs investigation was launched after Lauretano criticized the decision by Maco and Western District officers to interrogate the rape victim for the eighth time since the case began.

Wetern District detectives asked the mother to bring her son to a meeting at a barracks near New York City, then separated the boy from his mother and interrogated him for almost four hours without her permission or presence. The long interrogation resulted in the boy’s signing a conditional recantation that said he would withdraw his accusation of rape if the police found out it hadn’t happened.

Two days later, the boy told Lauretano on the phone that he had been pressured into signing the recantation. Lauretano included the boy's withdrawal of his recantation in a report that was at first suppressed when transcripts were released under a Freedom of Information request.

McIntosh filed a civil rights complaint against the officers who had interrogated her son without her permission. An internal affairs unit investigation exonerated the officers of all wrongdoing, then launched an investigation of Lauretano.

In his written decision, Judge Squatrito found that during the course of the two internal affairs investigations, Lauretano was silenced by the state police media policy and by direct orders from his superior officers who ordered him not to talk to the press, while state police administrators themselves violated the policy by giving media interviews in which they smeared Lauretano’s character and competency.

Reached at her Brooklyn home Wednesday, McIntosh said she was extremely pleased with Lauretano’s victory.

“I am so happy for Mark. It has been so long and it has taken a big toll on him and his family. He was the only one who really stood up for my son. Everybody else – the people at Hotchkiss, the CSP, everyone – treated my son very badly. Mark was the first one who interviewed my son. My son spoke the truth of what happened, and for that Mark was penalized. His whole life was interrupted,” McIntosh said.

McIntosh’s son, whose name has never been revealed in the press, is now in his second year of medical school at an Ivy League university on a full four year $240,000 scholarship. Although he is a brilliant student and has put the past behind him, McIntosh said he is still "scarred” from his experience at Hotchkiss.

“I know a lot of time my son is still upset over that situation. I know it bothers him and it bothers me too,” McIntosh said.

As if to add insult to injury, McIntosh said, she still receives mail from Hotchkiss soliciting donations.

State officials were unclear Wednesday about the meaning and impact of the federal court ruling. Sgt. Paul Vance, the CSP public information officer, said the media policy has been amended.

“We have a policy in place that abides by the rules and the First Amendment issues that were brought forth and they fall within what’s believed to be the ruling of the court. We don’t have them (the media policy) online,” Vance said.

A copy of the CSP’s current media policy was not available Wednesday, but Vance said the department has issued “a brand new A and O (Administration and Operations) manual, so I’m sure it’s in there.”

According to the CSP website, the last notice regarding the media policy was posted in August, 2005. The notice quotes Judge Squatrito’s declaratory judgment and states: “The agency, through the Office of the Attorney General, will be appealing the Court’s orders. Troopers are encouraged to seek guidance concerning the media policy from their commanding officers.”

Vance recommended seeking clarification from Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

“I would suggest it’s probably better to ask the AG. I really don’t know what happened, quite frankly. It’s something the AG handled,” Vance said.

The attorney general said the appeal had been withdrawn because the case was settled some time before the holiday.

“My understanding is there was some clarification of the media policy insofar as the restrictions on speech applied to employees who may be perceived as speaking on behalf of the agency,” Blumenthal said.

The attorney general discounted the suggestion that the federal court ruling would set a precedent for law enforcement and other government employees across the nation.

“I don’t think so. In fact, my understanding is this policy is modeled after existing policies maintained by the U.S. Department of Justice as applied to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies,” Blumenthal said.

Asked if the Justice Department’s model policy was drawn up prior to the court’s 2004 decision, Blumenthal said, “If there’s been a change, the new policies are modeled on the U.S. Department of Justice policies as applied to federal law enforcement agencies and other states that have adopted similar policies. Maybe they clarified what they thought was the policy before.”

The attorney general suggested seeking more information from the Connecticut State Police.

1881 words posted in General News4 comments

4 response(s) to Trooper wins $450,000 free speech case

  1. Donald Connery [Visitor] says:

    This powerful story by Gale Courey Toensing brings the first news of what is probably the last major development in a nine-year-old case that began with a boy's charge of rape at a famous boarding school and ends with an historic blow at rules that deny police officers the right to defend their honor. No one has reported this saga better than Toensing over the years and no journalist is more knowledgeable about the sequence of events and the meaning of it all. Read her report again and take note that there is a true hero at the center of this story. It takes great character and moral strength for a single police officer to defy the hierarchy of his organization when he sees and feels he must report inexcusable wrongdoing within the ranks. Mark Lauretano was slandered by his bosses but he always had truth and justice on his side. So he has prevailed, and we are all the better for it.

  2. karen torre [Visitor] says:

    Kudos to Gale Toensing for doggedly tackling and reporting on the details of this litigation and saga for years. A fine command of the details and attention to accurate reporting of the ongoing court proceedings marked Gale's coverage from beginning to end.

  3. Erwin Jausz [Visitor] says:

    - kudos, kudos and more kudos!!!
    - happy for Laurentano but assume that his attorney kept half for herself, or did she?

  4. JET [Visitor] Email says:

    TOUCHE TO TORRE, THE JUDGE AND THIS TROOPER FOR TAKING THE STANDS THEY DID IN THIS CASE. IT PROVIDES A RENEWED FAITH TO THOSE FACING SIMILAR DECISIONS TO STAND UP AGAINST ESTABLISHMENTS OF THE SAME CULTURE AS THE ONE DID IN THIS CASE. I KNOW THIS IS LITTLE IN THE WAY OF SUPPORT TO THEM GIVEN THE ENORMOUS STAMINA NEEDED TO STAY ON TASK IN A CASE LIKE THIS - BUT AT LEAST KNOW IT WILL BE AN INSPIRATION TO OTHERS SITTING ON THE FENCE TRYING TO DECIDE WHETHER OR NOT TO FIGHT AGAINST THE MANY INJUSTICES EXPOSED HERE!

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