Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Rolling the Dice on Cop's Lawsuit

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Rolling the Dice on Cop's Lawsuit

Article excerpt

In the middle of Paterson's worst fiscal crisis in years, the City Council, in a split vote, shot down a $1.6 million settlement proposal in a former cop's political retaliation lawsuit, ignoring warnings that to do so could end up heaping even greater costs on taxpayers.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in April against the city in the case, for which it has paid lawyers $660,000 over 10 years of litigation. The settlement would have pushed the total cost to resolve the case to nearly $2.3 million.

But in a 5-3 vote taken early Wednesday, the council opted not to heed its lawyer's advice.

Council President William McKoy, who favored the settlement, told his colleagues they were making "a very serious mistake," likening it to playing Russian roulette.

Domenick Stampone, the city's law director, told the council that the Supreme Court decision weakened the city's chances of winning if the case goes to trial. "That risk is too great to take," Stampone said.

The lawsuit focuses on Paterson's 2006 mayoral race that pitted former Police Chief Louis Spagnola against Joey Torres in his first stint as mayor.

Police Officer Jeffrey Heffernan, now retired, maintained that he was demoted and denied promotion after a Torres supporter saw him pick up a Spagnola campaign sign intended for his mother. The city has argued that Heffernan was punished for violating a political neutrality policy imposed on officers for the 2006 campaign, not because of a perception he did not back Torres.

Two of Torres' critics on the council expressed frustration that a dispute over a political sign threatened to cost the city so much.

"It's so hard for me to swallow this," said Councilman Alex Mendez, who voted against the settlement. "This is so clear this is political retaliation. How are you going to stop the rights of the people to support whoever they want?"

Councilman Andre Sayegh, who voted in favor of the settlement, said the Heffernan case exposed the mayor as "reckless, ruthless and a vindictive dictator."

"It's painfully obvious the mayor has performed political malpractice," said Sayegh, who twice opposed Torres for the mayoral seat.

After Wednesday morning's vote, some officials said the council may be asked to reconsider its decision.

Councilman Kenneth Morris, who abstained in the vote, said the proposed settlement amount seemed out of line compared with other cases. "People have lost legs and arms and not seen a settlement like this," Morris said.

But Stampone told the governing body the large dollar figure stemmed from the 10-year duration of the litigation along with laws governing federal civil rights cases that require defendants to pay the other side's legal expenses if they prevail.

The bulk of the proposed $1.6 million settlement, Stampone said, would end up covering Heffernan's legal fees. …

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