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DeSoto Officer Sues City over Firing

1 Apr

Mike McMunn, who was named DeSoto interim police chief on November 3 of last year after previous chief Rick Draper resigned (but was probably forced out), and then was fired on February 7, only to rejoin the force two weeks later as a sergeant, has filed a lawsuit (read it here) against the city over his firing. He also alleges that his rehiring agreement was violated and that part of this treatment was for political reasons.

Here is a timeline of events:

      • 10-23-17 – Police chief Rick Draper resigned (probably under threat of termination, I am hearing)
      • 11-3-17 – McMunn named interim chief
      • 1-29-18 – DeSoto police engage in high-speed chase over a stolen donation jar that leads to a bad crash in Washington County (McMunn was not doing the chasing)
      • 2-5-18 – Draper comes back to the department as a detective
      • 2-7-18 – McMunn fired, and while the city won’t say why, the chase and crash appears to be the official reason. McMunn says the city manager, Ann Baker, and the city attorney, Mark Bishop, fired him, even though his contract says only the city council can do that.
      • 2-19-18 – New police chief Joe Edwards’ first day
      • 2-21-18 – McMunn returns to work at the same rate of pay he received as acting chief
      • 3-23-18 – McMunn files lawsuit

McMunn states that after he was fired, he requested some documents from the city (personnel records and policies and such). One could surmise that these were wanted in preparation for a lawsuit. McMunn states that after this request was made the city started talks with him about bringing him back on the force at his old rank of sergeant but at his chief level of pay. The deal also said McMunn need not sign a waiver of litigation (basically agreeing not to sue).

However, he states that as soon as he came back to work, new chief Edwards, City Manager Baker, mayor Larry Sanders, and city attorney Bishop all, one at a time, pressured him to sign a waiver, which he declined to do. His next paycheck then showed a rate of pay $2.51 per hour lower than what was agreed upon. McMunn is suing to have his pay restored and the termination expunged from his record.

Claims of Political Motive

The lawsuit alleges that some of this treatment is politically motivated. Bishop has filed as a candidate in the August GOP primary for county prosecuting attorney. McMunn states that he is a vocal candidate of another candidate, presumably Bishop’s GOP opponent, Trish Stefanski. McMunn alleges that it is for this reason that Bishop had it out for him. (I notice that former chief Draper is also a Stefanski supporter.)

While I don’t doubt that McMunn was mistreated by the city and its ethically-dubious leadership, I have some skepticism about this part of the suit. This is in large part because McMunn’s attorney is Allison Sweeney, daughter and law partner of Robert Sweeney, who I have written much about and who has built a local municipal law empire while frequently interfering in politics. Perhaps the Sweeneys saw the chance to append a political shot onto this otherwise credible suit.

Related to this, here is a Leader ad from 2016:

judge-ad2

Note on the last line that the Sweeneys and Stefanski teamed up here to promote the Democratic judicial ticket. While I do not allege that there is any collusion here with the candidate, we see that all three agree on the type of candidates that should be elected to judicial system positions in JeffCo. So it makes you wonder.

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Comments on Lawsuit Column

12 Feb

Peggy Bess had a column in the February 1 Leader about the big legal bills being rung up by our county government in Hillsboro. I want to make three comments on the article.

First, in tallying up the costs, she doesn’t even add in the impact of the biggest lawsuit: the one concerning politician pay. Bess comes up with a total dollar amount of $83,610 for the Waller lawsuit – that he lost – over who could remove certain board members. But only about a week previously, Steve Taylor, also of the Leader, gave a total bill of over $150,000 for the two cases combined. It seems like mentioning the pay lawsuit would have only bolstered her point.

Second, the article attempts to place blame for these bills evenly between county executive Ken Waller and the county council. But the fact is, Waller is the one filing and participating in lawsuits. He filed the lawsuit Bess mentions. In the column, Bess casually dismisses the result of the lawsuit: “wow, that matters,” she sarcastically notes. But Waller lost because the issue wasn’t even ripe (ready for judicial involvement, since no board member had actually been removed). So it was a totally frivolous lawsuit, filed by Waller in a fit of pique, that is costing county taxpayers so much money. You can’t blame the council for that.

The other lawsuit, that continues to cost big bucks, is the suit by many current and former county officeholders asking for more money. Waller joined in this suit, and later left it under public and media pressure. Again, the council has no choice but to defend taxpayers, or this suit could cost the county $1 million or more in back pay. Once again, Bess should blame the plaintiffs, not the defendants.

Finally, Bess mentions that which is odd about the Missouri Attorney General’s sunshine lawsuit against councilwoman Renee Reuter, alleging that she ordered legal invoices to be destroyed. Namely:

  • The documents were not destroyed and have been provided to parties including the Leader.
  • “Under past Missouri attorneys general, Sunshine Law suits were hardly ever filed.” In one case a few years back in which Arnold violated the sunshine law by refusing to hand over city hall visitors logs, the AG threatened a lawsuit unless the records were handed over, giving Arnold a way out. But the current AG skipped this step.

On another note, not mentioned in the article, is that emails are presumably backed up on the server, and so cannot just be deleted from your desktop. And Reuter would surely know this. Also, the order to delete them allegedly came over the phone, so it comes down to a she said/she said situation. Questionable.

Colorful Prosecutor Running for Top Job

23 Jan

Jefferson County assistant prosecutor Thomas Hollingsworth, who works DWI cases, has announced he will run for prosecuting attorney as a Democrat in 2018, according to the January 11 Leader. There are already two declared Republican candidates – Mark Bishop and Trisha Stefanski.

I have a suggestion for Hollingsworth: since he prosecuted Jame Critchlow’s DWI case last year, his campaign slogan should be “I actually put a Critchlow in jail” – you know, unlike his boss, outgoing prosecutor Forrest Wegge (Democrat).

I was on a jury a couple of years ago for a case in which Hollingsworth was the prosecutor. I found him to be an effective and entertaining courtroom operator, and he won the case. You can take a look at him here, addressing the November 13 county council meeting during the public comments about increasing employee health insurance costs.

Sweeney Rebuked by MO Appeals Court

4 Jan

Robert Sweeney, who serves as attorney for multiple local government entities, including the cities of Arnold and Byrnes Mill, and who appears frequently in these pages, has once again achieved that combination of malfeasance and incompetence that he is known for. This time, his client was the Northeast Public Sewer District (NEPSD) of Jefferson County. In this case, the Appeals Court for the Eastern District of Missouri slammed Sweeney for filing a “frivolous appeal” and awarded legal costs to his opponent as a punishment.

Case Background

  • NEPSD took an easement on the property of one William Feucht of Fenton by condemnation and paid him $570 (Sweeney has experience with land taking – Arnold used eminent domain against a number of people and businesses to help a private developer build Arnold Commons. This led to long legal proceedings and surely big legal bills).
  • Feucht sued and won a jury trial that awarded him $11,500 for the property.
  • Sweeney appealed the verdict on the sole grounds that Feucht’s service in the Marines, which was mentioned during the trial, was irrelevant and prejudiced the jury.

The Decision

Now here is where the incompetence comes in. In order to appeal on certain grounds, you have to present that argument in the original case. If you don’t object to something at the time, you can’t complain about it later.

The reason Feucht’s service came up was that he was an accountant in the Marine Corps. He claimed at trial that this was part of his qualifications for being able to to state that his land was worth more than NEPSD gave him credit for.

Before evidence was presented at the trial, Sweeney made vague statements like (paraphrasing) “I may object to one or two slides” and “I don’t know what relevance this Marine thing is.” But when Feucht testified on his qualifications, and when he entered his Marine meritorious promotion certificate into evidence, Sweeney did not object. He also never motioned for a new trial. So he lost any right to appeal based on this issue.

And here we turn to the malfeasance. The court states that, even if Sweeney was able to appeal the mention of military service, he would have lost on the merits. The Sweeney Law Firm, actually represented by Bob’s daughter Allison on the appeal, claimed the discussion of Feucht’s military service was “extensive.” The court rejected this claim, pointing out that only a few lines of testimony on the subject were offered. And the court stated that being an accountant was highly relevant and central to Feucht’s ability to claim that he knew what his land was worth.

Penalty

Because of the blatant frivolity of this appeal, the court took the drastic step of forcing Sweeney to pay Feucht’s legal expenses (and he can’t get NEPSD to pay the money for him). But since Feucht was representing himself in front of the appeals court, and thus had few costs, he only got $350. Note: Sweeney lost to a guy representing himself! (Feucht did have an attorney for the original trial and early on in the appeals process.)

Here are some excerpts from the unanimous opinion of the three-judge panel hearing the case (link to the full opinion here):

 

sweeney-sewer1

And this:

sweeney-sewer2

Devoid of merit…failed to take basic steps…bad faith…careless attitude…no prospect of success…lack of professional effort.

These are damning words.

I have long theorized that Sweeney files meritless cases for two reasons: 1) he knows most people can’t afford to fight him in court, and 2) to inflate his legal bills. Both reasons appear to apply here, though the first did not work out for Sweeney. In addition to the $350 levied by the court, NEPSD should demand that Sweeney pay back his legal fees for this appeal.

With Sweeney’s history of failure (see links below), local government entities need to ask themselves why they continue to employ the Sweeney Law Firm, or in the case of Arnold, give him a big raise. It is clearly not in the best interest of these entities or the taxpayers to pay money to a lawyer that continues to litigate and lose weak cases.

Here is a list of Sweeney clients:

  • Arnold
  • Byrnes Mill
  • North Jefferson Ambulance
  • Public Water Supply District No. 13 (Lake Tishomingo)
  • Northeast Public Sewer District
  • City of Iberia, Missouri
  • Jefferson County 911 Dispatch
  • Washington County 911 Dispatch
  • Big River Ambulance District
  • Bismarck Fire Protection Association
  • Saline Valley Fire Protection District
  • Potosi Fire Protection District
  • DeSoto Rural Fire Protection District
  • Glaize Creek Public Sewer District

Sweeney Lowlights

Here are some Sweeney greatest hits:

  • His poor ballot language forced a tax revote
  • He kicked a candidate off the ballot and lost the resulting lawsuit, so new ballots had to be printed
  • He advised Arnold to deny a councilwoman’s request to see a city hall visitor log. The state attorney general intervened with a hard rebuke and threatened a lawsuit against the city.

Jefferson County Government Chaos Continues

16 Nov

Despite a full agenda that included approving higher-cost insurance coverage for county employees, appointing several people to county boards, adopting a procedure to fill resigning councilman Jim Kasten’s seat (Democrat, district 5), and dealing with a controversial zoning change on Old Lemay Ferry Road, the council instead voted to adjourn its November 13 meeting early in a continuing, seemingly intractable row between the council and County Executive Ken Waller over the payment of legal bills to defend the county against two lawsuits filed by county officeholders, including Waller himself.

After public comments part of the meeting, which happens right after roll call and in this case took over half an hour (mostly focused on the insurance issue), it was time to approve the agenda of the meeting. Councilman Don Bickowski (GOP, district 1) made a motion to add to the agenda a “resolution to acknowledge the valid obligations of Jefferson County to pay for legal services.” At a special meeting on November 6, the council voted to have this item placed on the agenda for the November 13 meeting, as the county charter allows in section 3.5.10. However, Waller did not place the item on the agenda. County counselor Tony Dorsett stated at Monday night’s meeting that there were unspecified “errors” with this vote, which apparently explain Waller’s failure to add the item to the agenda.

Dorsett also stated that, because of the Sunshine law and the charter’s 72-hour rule, both regarding advanced notice to the public of meeting agenda items, Bickowski’s resolution could not be added to the agenda. Some discussion took place over whether these rules apply to resolutions as opposed to bills, and Waller, in his role as chairman of the meeting, refused to allow a vote on this motion, stating at one point that “we aren’t going anywhere.” The meeting was at a standstill.

Bickowski then motioned to adjourn, and this motion passed on a 5-2 vote, with councilwoman Renee Reuter (GOP, district 2), who had been pressing for a vote on Bickowski’s agenda item, and councilman Phil Hendrickson (GOP, district 3), voting no. Though clearly frustrated, Kasten voted yes on the motion. So the meeting ended. The above described events can be watched on video here, starting at the 43:30 mark (the back-and-forth only lasted 10 minutes).

I’m not sure how this conflict over the legal bills is going to be settled (besides Waller resigning), but the county has to pay for services it has already received, and it is undeniable that Waller has a big conflict of interest here, since he was involved in bringing these lawsuits (one is a money grab for politicians, the other was a spat over who can remove county board members). However, I do not see what was accomplished by adjourning the meeting prematurely and delaying a lot of needed actions.

Pevely’s Side of Cop Beating Suit

12 Nov

I wrote here about a lawsuit filed against the Pevely police over alleged excessive force. The incident was from November 2016 and the suit was filed in January 2017. In it, a man (Robert Golden Jr) alleges he was beaten by Pevely police at a traffic stop for no good reason.

Having acquired the Pevely and Herculaneum police reports on this incident, I can provide the other side of the story. First, I stated in the previous post that dashcam video should be useful in adjudicating this claim. However, the police vehicle used in this incident (an unmarked one) does not have a dash camera. Several other Pevely cars also do not. The department is looking to phase out dash cameras and switch to body cameras for officers.

As the officers tell the story, Golden’s vehicle drew their attention because one of them recognized it from a brief high-speed chase a few months previously. The vehicle is distinctive in that it is a Chevy truck with a lift kit (as preferred by Florida-Georgia Line) and LED brow lighting. The officers turned to follow the vehicle and claimed that it crossed the center line four times and began to drive very slowly (35 in a 45). Golden states that he slowed down to let the close-following vehicle pass him. A stop was initiated.

Golden pulled over, but says that since he saw nothing indicating the people behind him were police, and he saw their guns drawn, he took off again. Pevely police indicate they were in an unmarked car equipped with lights and a siren that has been used for traffic stops in the past without incident. The police were also wearing plain clothes, as they were working that night on a Minor in Possession grant looking for underage drinkers. The police make no mention of their guns being drawn.

The officers state that Golden took off at high speed and continued to swerve. He proceeded into Herculaneum, where a Herky officer was waiting with lights flashing. Golden says he pulled over to seek assistance, but the Pevely officers say he pulled over abruptly in a way that had his vehicle pointing at the Herky car’s driver door, giving Golden “a distinct tactical advantage” and creating a “very grave and dangerous situation.” As such, the Herky officer drew his gun, a fact agreed to by all, and Pevely police initiated a “dynamic approach” to the vehicle.

Pevely police claim that Golden refused to exit the vehicle, so they yanked him down from his lifted cab to the ground and he sustained an abrasion on his cheek (this is the only injury visible on booking photos). They say he would not put his hands behind his back, so they forcibly pulled them back and cuffed him. This included an officer placing a knee in his back and placing a gun against his head, at which time his resistance stopped. [This is when Golden alleged that other abuse, including kicks and head slams into the ground, occurred.] Meanwhile other officers broke the passenger window after orders to open it were ignored, opened the door themselves, and removed three passengers without incident.

Two minor charges were all that Pevely filed as a result of this incident:

  • Failed to maintain a single lane of traffic
  • Failed to yield to emergency vehicle

Judge Reverses Council on Zoning Rejection

5 Nov

I have written before about what I see as the Jefferson County Council’s excessive willingness to deny rezoning applications filed by people trying to start new businesses, instead siding with the NIMBY interests of neighboring landowners. On this subject, we had a case last month (16JE-CC00344) in which a rejected applicant sued the county and won, with the judge ordering the council to approve the rezoning request.

It was in April 2016 that the council heard a request by Tony Pona to rezone land at Miller Road and West Outer Road in Imperial from residential to commercial in order to open a mini-storage and boat/RV storage facility. The county staff and the planning and zoning commission recommended approval of the project, but the county council rejected it (see meeting minutes here). Pona filed a lawsuit a month later.

In October, JeffCo judge Troy Cardona sided with Pona, stating that:

The reasoning for the denial was at best conjecture and refuted by the evidence presented. The denial cites to traffic concerns as one of the main reasons for denial, yet such speculation used in the denial was refuted by a traffic study that showed little to no impact on traffic. It has been held that it is incongruous to use existing traffic conditions to limit a property owner to a use which those very traffic conditions have made undesirable.

At the council’s October 23 meeting, it passed the first of three votes of approval of the storage project. This was after moving the vote to the end of the meeting, after a closed session that presumably was used to discuss this case and the judge’s order.

This case goes to show that business owners have avenues to challenge the council if it makes improper zoning denials.

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