The city council rejected a $1.6 million payout to settle a case stemming from mayor Jose “Joey” Torres’ alleged political retaliation against a longtime police officer for his perceived support of the mayor’s opponent in the 2006 mayoral election.
Council members in a 5-3-1 vote rejected the settlement in the Jeffrey Heffernan case early Wednesday morning despite warnings the municipality could end up losing millions more going through a trial in a case that went through the U.S. Supreme Court.
The highest court in the land sided with longtime police officer.
“We’re facing some significant exposure. As big as this number is it could be that much bigger with an adverse ruling at trial,” said law director Domenick Stampone, who tried to absolve his boss of any blame in the case. “At that point you can’t control the costs as high as this is. Fee shifting would be awarded by the court.”
The settlement resolves all claims in the lawsuit. If the city loses in a new round of proceedings or obtains a lesser award amount through a trial it will still end up paying the former police officer’s legal expenses which are certain to exceed $1.6 million due to 11 years of litigation.
Stampone reckoned most of the settlement money is likely going towards legal expenses. He said the initial settlement offer was well over $2 million, but was negotiated down to $1.6 million. He said the high court’s ruling severely weakened the city’s position in the case.
The case stemmed from a 2006 incident in which Heffernan went to the downtown Paterson campaign office of police chief Lawrence Spagnola, who was challenging the incumbent, to pick up a lawn sign for his bedridden mother.
Heffernan was spotted at the location picking up the sign. Torres’ bodyguard saw him there and word spread. The next day, Heffernan was demoted from detective to a patrol officer. He was assigned to a “walking post.”
Stampone downplayed the political side of the case and rather focused on the technical issues surrounding the First Amendment. Council members noticed Stampone’s “spinning” of the events that led to the lawsuit in the first place.
“It’s so hard for me to swallow this. It’s so clear it’s political retaliation,” said Alex Mendez, councilman at-large.
Mendez said this is a clear example of some individuals putting their “personal agendas” ahead of the taxpayers’ interest.
“It is painfully obvious the mayor has performed political malpractice even if you don’t call it retaliation. Petty politics at its worst,” said Andre Sayegh, 6th Ward councilman. “This is all for a lawn sign. Spin it anyway in which you want, but a lawn sign is going to cost us over $2.2 million.”
Sayegh accounted for the $663,489 the city incurred in legal expenses so far. Stampone noted the city avoided paying legal fees defending itself in the high court. In all, taxpayers are on the hook for $2,263,489 for the mayor’s alleged political retaliation.
Sayegh said this is Torres being “reckless,” “ruthless,” and “coming off as a vindictive dictator.” He said Torres tried to indemnify himself when there was an adverse ruling in the past so that taxpayers pick up his tab for any personal liabilities.
Torres did not respond to a call for comment on Wednesday morning.
Council members Sayegh, Shahin Khalique, and William McKoy voted in favor of settling to avoid paying a larger cost in the future.
Maritza Davila, Ruby Cotton, Michael Jackson, Luis Velez, and Mendez voted against the agreement.
Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large, abstained from the vote.
“I think we need to take our chances,” said Cotton.
“I don’t see us winning this case. We’re making a very serious mistake to go against all conventional legal advice,” said McKoy when majority of his colleagues voted against the settlement.
He said this matter could have been quickly resolved through an admonishment rather than demoting the detective.
“Are we willing to take this Russian Roulette with five bullets in the chamber and one blank and think we’d be lucky enough to get on the blank?” said the council president.