After rejecting a settlement agreement a week earlier, the city council approved a $1.6 million payout on Tuesday night settling a decade old lawsuit filed by former police officer Jeffrey Heffernan alleging mayor Jose “Joey” Torres retaliated against him for picking up a political sign for his bedridden mother from Torres’ opponent’s campaign headquarter.
Heffernan’s case reached the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year delivering the city a defeat in the country’s highest court. The loss at the highest level left the city with a weakened case and in no mood to incur additional legal expenses.
“There’s no guarantee we can win this case,” said Victor Afanador of Lite DePalma & Greenberg to council members at their special meeting on Tuesday night. “The exposure we have is a massive downside.”
Afanador said arguing the case all over again will cost taxpayers $300,000 to $400,000 in legal expenses alone. He said this amount would be multiplied in the event of a loss which would shift Heffernan’s legal costs over to the city.
Council members fearing taxpayers would be footing a larger bill in the future voted 7-1 to approve the settlement. Alex Mendez, councilman at-large, was the sole vote against the settlement.
Ruby Cotton, 4th Ward councilwoman, was absent. Council members Maritza Davila, Shahin Khalique, Kenneth Morris, Andre Sayegh, Michael Jackson, and William McKoy voted to settle the case.
Council president McKoy, who allowed the attorney to address council members in a rare open session, said an adroit manager could have avoided the adverse decision that led to the case in the first place.
“A good manager would have known how to navigate around this that the cascading consequence of that decision could have been avoided,” said McKoy. He has said a simple admonishment to Heffernan to stop political activities would have saved a decade of litigation.
The case stemmed from a 2006 incident in which Heffernan went to the downtown Paterson campaign office of former police chief Lawrence Spagnola, who was challenging the incumbent, to pick up a lawn sign for his sick 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.”
This demotion resulted from a policy at the police department barring officers working in the chief’s office from overtly getting involved in local politics. Afanador said then-police chief James Wittig expanded the original policy which said police officers should not engage in political activities that interfere with their job to blanket political activity.
“They turned that policy as a tool of political retaliation,” said Mendez.
“The political games need to be stopped,” said Jackson, 1st Ward councilman. He said this case should teach a lesson to elected officials.
“The mayor created a $2.2 million mess. Now, the taxpayers have to clean it up,” said Andre Sayegh, 6th Ward councilman.
Sayegh accounted for the $663,489 the city incurred in legal expenses. The more than hour long discussion on the case with the attorney cost taxpayers a little more money after last week’s rejection, said Morris.
Morris said there should be some sort of a policy that shifts some of the costs for lawsuits involving police officers over to the police unions.
“I don’t know where we’ll find this money,” said Morris. He said there’s little breathing room in the settlement’s payment schedule.
The first payment of $300,000 is due on November 15th, 2016. The second for $500,000 is due on February 15th, 2017. And the final payment of $800,000 is due on September 30th, 2017, according to the resolution approving the settlement.
“This is a settlement we are all not comfortable with,” said Velez, 5th Ward councilman. He squarely put the blame on Wittig for the demotion and the case.
The retired police chief received a great deal of blame from some of the council members.
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