I came across an incident from 2004 that is highly relevant to the current GOP primary race for Jefferson County Sheriff. It involves something that is not all that rare, a high profile person being let off the hook after being caught driving drunk. But Sean Cooper, then a Festus cop and now a sheriff candidate, chose not to play along.
Drawing from contemporary news reports and the lawsuit filed by Cooper, here are the allegations in the case:
One night in March 2004 when he was on duty, Cooper states that he was warned by a fellow officer, Sgt. William Stewart, that Festus municipal judge Michael Lowry was driving around drunk in his new black Lincoln. Shortly thereafter, Cooper followed a Crystal City officer to the scene of an accident involving…a black Lincoln. Stewart was already there.
Stewart asked the Crystal City cop to handle the incident, but the latter said no because Lowry filled in as a judge in Crystal City sometimes. He suggested bringing in the Highway Patrol. Stewart allegedly declined, remained in charge, and suggested to the driver of the other vehicle in the accident that she might lose her license because she had no proof of insurance. The driver then left the scene, making no accident report.
Then Festus police chief Tim Lewis, who is still the chief, showed up and drove Lowry home. No charges were filed, no arrrests made, and no police report was filed.
Cooper reported this incident to his superiors and to a Festus councilman. Cooper also met with the mayor. Two months later, some sort of investigative hearing was held with Cooper, the mayor, and several councilmen. Cooper tape recorded his testimony at the hearing, and they knew this was happening. He even turned over the tape to a councilman upon his request.
Despite assurances by the mayor and council members that his job was not in jeopardy and that he was protected as a whistleblower, Cooper was fired by Chief Lewis shortly after the hearing. The investigation into the Lowry incident was dropped and no action was taken. Lowry, however, who denied he was intoxicated, resigned as city judge after this, supposedly for unrelated reasons.
The official reason for Cooper’s firing was that he tape recorded that hearing, and general orders prohibit recording city employees without consent. But Cooper did not record employees, he recorded his own comments to elected officials. This reminds me of a recent Defense Department case in which an analyst who spoke out against political manipulation of intelligence about ISIS was suspended and reassigned – for swearing. Any excuse to get rid of a whistleblower. That DOD analyst won her appeal and got her job back, though.
Festus also tried to claim that Crystal City actually took charge of the Lowry incident, but Crystal City chief Doug Ruess denied this.
Cooper filed a federal lawsuit against the city over his firing in November 2004. In the end, Cooper won a $55,000 settlement from the city. According to Stewart’s LinkedIn page, he still works for the Festus police, though his name is not listed in the police email directory.
What We Need
In a time when cronyism is rampant, trust in police is impaired, and the Missouri municipal court system is seen as corrupt, we need a guy like Sean Cooper with ethics, and the courage to follow them, as our next JeffCo sheriff. It would send a message that voters want the same rules to apply to everyone when it comes to the law. Here’s what Cooper says on his website:
First, I will not tolerate any ethical misconduct. This is deeply rooted in the core of my being, and the reason why I became a whistleblower concerning law enforcement related corruption in the spring of 2004.
Honor is a word that its definition is best seen in a life lived of courage, respect, integrity and honesty. The character of a man will follow him to his grave, but the respect spoken of his name afterward reveals the life he lived.