Like a fighter who keeps getting pummeled but refuses to throw in the towel, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick last week lost another legal round to a pair of police officers suing him and the city for alleged violations of the state’s Whistleblower Protection Act.
The civil suits are being brought by Officer Harold Nelthrope, a former mayoral bodyguard, and Gary Brown, a former deputy chief who previously headed the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Unit.
Nelthrope’s problems started after he approached Internal Affairs, also known as the Professional Accountability Bureau, with allegations that some members of the mayor’s security team were getting paid for overtime hours they didn’t work, as well as other alleged transgressions. He also reported rumors of a wild party at the mayoral mansion involving strippers, one of whom was allegedly assaulted by the mayor’s wife, Carlita Kilpatrick.
Brown says he was fired for letting members of his unit investigate Nelthrope’s allegations.
Previously, an independent mediation panel had reportedly recommended that the two cops be awarded a total of more $2 million.
Instead of agreeing to accept that recommendation, the city chose to put the issue in the hands of a judge. Its lawyers filed briefs asking Wayne County Circuit Judge Michael J. Callahan to throw the cases out. Callahan ruled last week that the cases had enough merit to proceed to trial.
And in the case of Nelthrope, he did much more than that. In an extraordinarily rare move, Callahan ruled that Nelthrope’s whistleblower suit is so clear-cut the only thing a jury must decide is how much compensation the cop should get.
Based on deposition testimony provided by Kilpatrick chief of staff Christine Beatty and others, Callahan decided that it’s clear the mayor’s administration is responsible for the release of a two-page Police Department memo identifying Nelthrope as the “confidential” informant who brought the allegations to the attention of Internal Affairs, and that the action was clearly punitive.
“Release of the two-page memo was done to retaliate against Officer Nelthrope and to intimidate him,” Callahan wrote.
Nelthrope is also alleging that Kilpatrick slandered him when the mayor went on television and called the cop a liar, adding that he hoped Nelthrope’s family was watching the broadcast.
A jury must still decide the slander charges. However, Callahan ruled that Kilpatrick can be held personally responsible, noting that the outburst was an expression of Kilpatrick’s “own anger, which had nothing to do with his public duties.”
Kilpatrick lawyer Samuel McCargo says an appeal is imminent. He contends Callahan erred in ruling that Nelthrope’s whistleblower claim is beyond dispute. He also says that opening the door for Kilpatrick to be held personally responsible for the alleged slander sets a dangerous precedent that could serve to inhibit the state’s other public officials.
A jury will also weigh Brown’s allegations that he was removed as head of Internal Affairs for looking into Nelthrope’s complaint, and whether such retaliation is a violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act.
Attorney Michael Stefani, who represents both Nelthrope and Brown, says the mayor is doing a disservice to Detroit’s taxpayers by continuing the legal fight.
“We have tried all kinds of ways to resolve this case, and they just won’t listen,” Stefani says. “They won’t even talk settlement. Whatever we suggest, the mayor refuses to admit that he made any mistakes at all, and therein lies the problem for the City of Detroit.”
McCargo points out that investigators from the Michigan State Police and the state Attorney General’s Office looked into Nelthrope’s original allegations and found no criminal wrongdoing. Overtime abuse was verified, but no laws were found to be broken. Also, rumors of the party at the Manoogian were deemed to be nothing more than urban myth.
Serious questions remain as to just how thorough those investigations were. In a memo written last December, State Police Lt. Curtis Schram noted that his investigation into the Manoogian party rumors was hamstrung by the attorney general’s refusal to issue subpoenas necessary to obtain crucial documents such as hospital and phone records. Likewise, no subpoenas were issued to force the cooperation of police officers who refused to be interviewed.
As Stefani points out, however, whether the mansion party ever occurred is a moot point at this juncture.
“We don’t have to prove that there was a party,” Stefani says.
What Brown must prove is that the mayor and his administration retaliated against him merely for having the “audacity” to look into the allegations.Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]