An investigator concluded that it is unlikely that Police Chief Margaret Ackley would prevail in a lawsuit against the city if she had sued regarding her complaints against former city councilor and mayoral candidate Michael Buscetto III, according to a report made public Saturday.
City Council President Michael Passero disclosed the findings of Beverly Hodgson, a former Superior Court judge who was to investigate the matter after Ackley publicly accused Buscetto of unethical behavior. Passero said that because Mayor Daryl Finizio , he felt Hodgson’s report should be released as well. Passero e-mailed the document to other members of the City Council, Buscetto, Ackley, and members of the media.
Finizio, who announced a $25,000 settlement with Ackley on Friday, previously said that Hodgson’s report was protected under attorney-client privilege. The City Council is scheduled to meet with Finizio on Wednesday to discuss the report.
Accusations and findings
Ackley detailed several grievances against Buscetto in an Aug. 24, 2011 letter from Shelley Graves, her attorney, to former Law Director Thomas Londregan. Ackley accused Buscetto of gender discrimination, harassment, creating a hostile work environment, and impeding functions of the . She also claimed that the city did not take action to investigate or address Buscetto’s behavior.
Hodgson said she interviewed Ackley on two occasions as well as Buscetto, former City Managers Martin Berliner and Denise Rose, and Personnel Coordinator Bernadette Welch. Hodgson also spoke with several members of the police department including former Deputy Chief Marshall Segar, captains William Dittman and Michael Lacey, and New London Police Union president Todd Lynch.
The reports says Buscetto’s remarks to police department personnel could be interpreted as arising from “political rivalries and allegiances” rather than gender discrimination. Hodgson says Ackley’s claim that the City Council’s vote in favor of making Dittman chief showed a gender bias is not supported by the city manager’s decision to appoint Ackley per the recommendation of the Association of Connecticut Police Chiefs. The report says that Buscetto remained vocal in his opposition to Ackley, but that her claims “are complicated by the fact that much of the conduct alleged is the expression of his opinion in speech, and is therefore protected by the First Amendment unless it is defamatory.”
Hodgson says a defamation claim would also likely be unsuccessful since it would have to be a result of extreme circumstances. She says Ackley’s claim—including comments from Buscetto implying that she is a lesbian—is “ambiguous,” with different recollections on the wording of statements and Ackley knowing of the alleged comments “only from the reports of others.”
Hodgson found that Ackley’s claim that police union members committed gender discrimination by filing numerous grievances against her could also be interpreted in a different way. Hodgson says she believes grievances “increased in response to the Chief's tightening of rules and management expectations after the departure of a chief who had been somewhat easy-going in his final years on the job.”
Hodgson said Segar confirmed one of two accusations made by Ackley that Buscetto “grabbed [Ackley] in a public setting and staged himself kissing her in order to suggest to bystanders that they were getting along well.” Hodgson said these could be considered “isolated incidents” under the federal Civil Rights Act and that it would be unlikely that a judge would find them grounds for a sexual harassment claim. Hodgson said the city’s harassment policy is meant to prohibit conduct with sexual overtones rather than a broad range of intimidating or offensive conduct, and that there is no evidence that Welch treated Ackley differently from any other municipal employee in the interpretation of the policy.
The report says Berliner and Rose encouraged Ackley to put her complaints in writing so they could be investigated. Hodgson said Ackley “declined to provide specific, definite allegations in writing, and [Berliner and Rose] make the credible point that they could not refer to the Board of Ethics or anti-discrimination authorities charges that were vague and lacking in dates, specifics and the names of those alleged to have engaged in the conduct complained of.”
The report also states that there is no evidence to suggest intentional infliction of emotional distress on the part of the city, and that a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress would be unlikely to succeed because its scope is limited to “claims arising from humiliating methods of terminating an employee’s employment.”
Hodgson says she believes some of Ackley’s claims suggest that Buscetto acted on behalf of the city in making disparaging remarks to police personnel. She says a trial would likely determine that Buscetto was acting as an individual and the “motivation is likely to be found to be political rivalries and allegiances rather than gender discrimination.” Hodgson says the fact that women held the offices of city manager and personnel coordinator at the time of Ackley’s claims would also help the city make an argument against gender discrimination.
The report says attorney’s fees may be awarded if a claimant can show discrimination under state or federal statutes. Hodgson concluded that the city did not violate anti-discrimination laws and that Ackley would not be eligible for such fees.
Hodgson concludes that Ackley would have “an extremely difficult time” winning a lawsuit against the city. However, she says the case could still have a “settlement value” to a defendant to avoid the risk of losing and expense of a trial. Hodgson places this value as under $30,000 in Ackley’s claims.
On Friday, Buscetto said he considered Ackley’s claims unfounded. He previously said the charges were politically motivated and intended to inhibit his mayoral campaign.
Buscetto announced the findings near the conclusion of , an annual fundraiser that took place today. Supporters cheered him as he read portions of the report.
“I would like to say to my kids and my wife, who have read a ton, and we were accused of a lot of things: it looks like someone lied, and it wasn’t me,” said Buscetto.
Finizio criticized Passero’s decision to release Hodgson’s report in a press release tonight.
"The settlement reached with Chief Ackley was within the recommended settlement suggested in the judge's report," said Finizio. "While this report was not conclusive, ongoing investigations are further examining some of the same matters previously examined by the judge. I have always believed that only with an outside investigation can such matters be fully and properly investigated."
Finizio added, "Based upon newly received evidence of possible criminal activity in the department, a new investigation is underway. I hope that by releasing this report before the full council had a chance to be briefed on this developing situation, President Passero has not compromised an ongoing criminal investigation."
Passero responded to the statement by saying the release of the Hodgson report was necessary as a matter of fairness. He also accused Finizio of recklessness in releasing documents pertaining to a disciplinary action against a police officer that also accused Buscetto of sexual harassment at a nightclub at Foxwoods Resort Casino in 2009.
"It was misleading to the public to allow only part of the record to be released," said Passero in an e-mail. "Judge Hodgson’s report is the only independent investigation of Chief Ackley’s allegations against a former city councilor. It was completely unacceptable to release a raw investigation file that did not result in criminal charges but refuse to release the results of an unbiased investigation."
Administrative changes and corruption investigation
The release of the report follows a number of administrative changes in the police department this week. Ackley has as police chief, and Finizio announced Friday that the city had reached a $25,000 settlement regarding her claims.
Segar’s contract was allowed to expire, and Finizio said the deputy chief’s position will remain and that a search for a person to fill it is underway. , with Dittman’s becoming effective on Sunday.
Finizio also announced on Friday that Officer Joshua Bergeson was fired following a disciplinary hearing and that Officer Roger Newton has been placed on paid leave after he was accused of planting evidence on a suspect.
Saturday night, Finizio said the Connecticut State Police Central Division has been requested to assist an ongoing corruption investigation at the police department. He said a police vehicle and several other pieces of evidence have been seized as a result of the investigation.
"I ask all New Londoners to reserve judgment on this developing matter until a thorough outside investigation can be concluded" Finizio said. "The people of New London deserve to have full confidence in the honesty and integrity of all who serve them in uniform. The administration, the chief of police, and the State's Attorney's Office are working diligently to ensure that our police department is second to none in effectiveness and ethical standards"
Correction: The article initially said that Officer Roger Baker is on paid leave. The officer's name is Roger Newton.