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News & Noteworthy

Meriden officials continue to wait for police probe report

MERIDEN — More than a year after lawyer Thomas V. Daily was hired by the city to investigate allegations that members of the Police Department conspired to cover up cases of brutality and other misconduct, officials are still waiting for his findings. However, the long and potentially costly wait is not without precedent, and many with experience in municipal government say it is necessary to protect the city from complex legal entanglements that could last years.

As the cost of the investigation continues to climb, officers Donald Huston and Brian Sullivan and former officer Leighton “Buddy” Gibbs have announced their intention to sue the city and the department, saying that Chief Jeffry Cossette and other members of the department retaliated against them for cooperating with Daily and federal agents.

Despite the recent developments, City Manager Lawrence J. Kendzior and city councilors have maintained that judgment or action on the allegations, made in March 2011 by Sullivan and Huston, will be delayed until after Daily’s report is finished.

Daily did not return a request for comment Friday.

Philip Schenck, a labor law professor at the University of New Haven who served as Avon town manager for 32 years until retiring in 2010, said hiring an independent party to review serious allegations against employees has become the norm for most municipalities.

While agencies such as the FBI and state police will look purely at whether criminal charges should be filed, independent attorneys are more apt to focus on policy violations, Schenck said.

“As an administrator, I’d want to go in and make sure that everything was done in accordance with city ordinances, procedures and policies,” he said. “You’ve got to separate the criminal from the administrative.”

Schenck said that more lawyers now offer private investigation services to municipalities, particularly due to a greater demand for transparency from the media and the public.

The Abbatematteo case

Daily is not the first to be brought in over the last decade to probe allegations against the Police Department’s top brass.

In 2004, the city hired an outside attorney to review accusations concerning former Chief William C. Abbatematteo. The review found no evidence of criminal activity, but uncovered ethical violations that eventually led to Cossette’s becoming chief.

Abbatematteo was placed on paid administrative leave while the nearly yearlong investigation took place, but only after he was accused of attempting to influence the testimony of Cossette (who was deputy chief at the time) to the Board of Ethics.

Former City Manager Roger L. Kemp, who placed Abbatematteo on leave shortly before retiring, said the choice was made only after lengthy consultations with private labor lawyers and city attorneys.

“That was appropriate under those circumstances,” he said. “When you put someone on leave, you’re not saying they’re guilty or innocent. I believe because we were checking out the chief, you wouldn’t want the chief there.”

Cossette has denied all allegations against him, and has continued to perform all of his duties. Abbatematteo’s case differed from Cossette’s in that he had lost the support of much of the police force, as evidenced by an overwhelming vote of no confidence from the police union. Cossette, who succeeded Abbatematteo in 2005, has kept the union’s backing, leaving his small group of detractors with little visible support from within the department.

State law dictates that police chiefs may be fired only with specific legal cause, to protect them against the whims of newly elected politicians. That left the city to battle over the terms of Abbatematteo’s exit. He eventually won a settlement that granted him a full disability pension.

Employees who are terminated often challenge the move through wrongful termination suits or grievances, in which case the independent reviews can provide crucial evidence.

“It gives them the ability to move ahead, because very often these things have a tail to them and they end up in court,” Schenck said. “Spending the money up front to have it done properly may save a lot of money, in terms of legal expenses and settlements down the road.”

The Koistinen case

Other towns that have experienced recent police controversies have also waited for definitive evidence to be detailed by lawyers before disciplining or firing employees.

In Windsor Locks, a 2010 accident in which officer Michael Koistinen, the son of a veteran police sergeant, fatally struck a 15-year-old on his bicycle while driving drunk spurred similar probes by both law enforcement and private attorney Frank Rudewicz.

Koistinen was fired just weeks after the accident, but the town’s Police Commission delayed other action until after Rudewicz’s report was completed — which took nearly nine months. He found that an accident investigation team had not conspired to protect Koistinen — which angered some residents — but the commission found enough in the report to justify firing his father, Sgt. Robert Koistinen. The police chief, John Suchocki, retired days before Rudewicz’s report was released.

In Meriden, Kendzior said, the city chose Daily to review Huston and Sullivan’s allegations partially because of his familiarity with federal law enforcement.

“These sorts of investigations are something that he specializes in. He’s a former assistant U.S. attorney; that’s obviously a qualification that was very apt for this kind of case,” Kendzior said.

Daily spent 12 years as an assistant prosecutor in U.S. District Court, handling cases involving violent crimes, corporate fraud and government corruption. He also served as the Project Safe Neighborhoods prosecutor in Hartford, prosecuting gun and other violent crimes and heading the U.S. Attorney’s Office community outreach efforts.

Daily earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina in 1982 and graduated from the University of Connecticut School of Law in 1988.

Kendzior said Daily specializes in investigating municipal agencies such as police departments, although he was unable to recall any other cases in which Daily had been involved.

While Daily’s findings will likely come at a significant cost to the city — he billed the city $38,828 last July for approximately three months worth of work — Schenck and Kemp said investigators such as Daily are hired to provide a neutral reporting of the facts, not to rebut possible findings by law enforcement.

“I would say it would be prudent to have an independent outside source to come in, analyze the facts. Then you can base your decisions on that,” Kemp said. “You hire someone to be objective. That’s worth its weight in gold.”

 

 

 


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