Fort Worth

Fired Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald files whistleblower lawsuit against city

Fired Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the city, alleging that a confrontation in Washington, D.C., was orchestrated by union presidents and also criticizing the mayor’s five-person security team.

At a news conference on Friday afternoon, Fitzgerald’s Dallas attorney Stephen Kennedy, said the former chief was hired to “clean up the department.”

“That’s what he tried to do,” Kennedy said, adding that during his time at the department, Fitzgerald disciplined more than 50 officers for violations ranging from drug use, DUI’s, harassment and use of force.

The lawsuit, filed late Thursday afternoon in Dallas County, also alleges that the city fired Fitzgerald in retaliation for reporting to officials, including the FBI, that the city was not in compliance with federal Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS) regulations.

The lawsuit alleges Fitzgerald was called into a meeting May 20 with City Manager David Cooke just two hours before he was to meet with the FBI to provide documentation to support his whistleblower report.

In that meeting with Cooke, Assistant City Manager Jay Chapa and an Human Resources representative, the lawsuit states, Fitzgerald was given two options.

The first was to take a lump sum payment in exchange for agreeing not to sue the city or provide any support to others suing the city for whistleblower violations.

“If he refused the cash-for-silence offer, Chapa said that Dr. Fitzgerald would be terminated ‘with cause’ and the City would ‘tie him up in litigation for six years,’” the lawsuit alleges.

Fitzgerald chose the latter. He is seeking more than $1 million, to be reinstated with back pay or given “front pay” in lieu of reinstatement.

Assistant City Manager Susan Alanis said in an emailed statement Thursday afternoon: “The City continues to be fully prepared to defend itself against these absurd allegations. To be clear, the City has affirmed our CJIS certification with the Department of Public Safety. The City stands behind the decision to terminate the Chief’s employment.”

Because of the chief’s firing, Fitzgerald was not able to make his meeting with the FBI.

The lawsuit states, however, the federal agency later received evidence supporting Fitzgerald’s whistleblower report and is investigating. It also says the state is investigating the alleged Criminal Justice Information System violations and recent destruction of evidence claims.

Fitzgerald did not make comments on Friday. Kennedy said Fitzgerald is going through “a very difficult time.”

An ‘unfounded’ termination

Kennedy is also representing two fired IT employees in their whistleblower lawsuits against the city.

Similar to the two IT employees’ claims, Fitzgerald alleges he was fired by the city because he was investigating and had reported ongoing violations of federal regulations governing access to CJIS — a federally maintained centralized database that law enforcement agencies use to share data and information.

The lawsuit claims Kevin Gunn, the acting chief financial officer for the city, and Roger Wright, the acting chief technology officer, had misled Fitzgerald, the city and the Texas Department of Public Safety when they claimed the city had resolved all pending CJIS compliance issues.

It also claims city officials intentionally destroyed documents required to be maintained for public access.

The city has previously denied those allegations in response to the previously filed whistleblower lawsuits and insisted it is in compliance with all federal regulations.

The lawsuit also attacks the city’s reasons for firing Fitzgerald, as laid out in his termination letter written by Chapa and shared with the media, as “either fabricated or irrelevant to his employment.”

In the memo, Chapa references Fitzgerald’s “increasing lack of good judgment.”

“You have a track record of making decisions that are more focused on your best interest inside of the best interests of the city, the organization or department as a whole,” the memo states.

It noted a May 12 encounter between Fitzgerald and Todd Harrison, president of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, during a National Police Week awards ceremony in Washington, D.C. The confrontation, described by some witnesses to the Star-Telegram as ”heated,” was prompted by a news release announcing that the state union was kicking Fitzgerald out.

“You chose to address a personal matter at a national event where the focus should have been on our fallen officers and the officers being honored for their heroism,” Chapa wrote.

In the lawsuit, Fitzgerald alleges he was, in part, kicked out of the state union because of his strained relationship with Terry Daffron, a state union attorney who frequently represents disciplined Fort Worth officers in their appeals.

Fitzgerald claims in the lawsuit that many “old-school” officers, including Manny Ramirez, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, openly challenged him as “too strict, and did not appreciate his reputation for requiring his officers to maintain squeaky-clean ‘by the book’ professionalism.”

He said his removal from the state union came after he told Caroline Gilmore, a vice president of the local and state union, that he intended to file an ethics violation complaint against Daffron.

He alleges Harrison, Gilmore, and Ramirez orchestrated the encounter in D.C. to “publicly dress down” Fitzgerald for threatening to report Daffron to the Bar Association.

The lawsuit includes statements from three witnesses — a Tarrant County Sheriff’s chaplain, the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department and the Boston police commissioner — who reported seeing nothing unprofessional or heated during the encounter.

“When I learned that Mr. Harrison had accused Chief Fitzgerald of inappropriate behavior that evening on the stage, I told Chief Fitzgerald that I didn’t observe any inappropriate behavior and did not observe any sort of confrontation or behavior out of the ordinary,” Boston Police Commissioner William Gross wrote.

Ramirez responded to the chief’s claims in an email to the Star-Telegram Friday afternoon.

“During Mr. Fitzgerald’s tenure as the Chief of Police in Fort Worth he routinely disciplined officers who, in his opinion, did not take responsibility for inappropriate actions. It is ironic, now, that Mr. Fitzgerald finds himself in a similar situation and has chosen to not take responsibility for his own unprofessional behavior,” Ramirez said. “Despite the embarrassing headlines over the last several months, our Officers have never lost focus of the mission to serve and protect our great city, and we will not lose focus now.”

Because of the pending litigation, Ramirez said, “we will no longer be commenting on matters related to the former Chief.”

Fitzgerald, the city’s first black police chief, started in October 2015.

Other allegations made in the lawsuit against the city include:

That the city falsely claimed, and Mayor Betsy Price announced, that Fitzgerald had publicly accepted the chief’s position with Baltimore when he had not.

That the city wrongfully used a memo Fitzgerald had emailed to himself accusing the city of racial discrimination as a basis for his termination. Chapa’s termination memo accused Fitzgerald of refusing to move forward with investigations to address his discrimination allegations but the lawsuit states Fitzgerald will be filing an EEOC complaint against the city.

That the city “manufactured” and backdated two performance evaluations for Fitzgerald.

The lawsuit includes a December 2018 email exchange between Fitzgerald and HR Director Brian Dickerson in which Fitzgerald questioned the sudden appearance of the evaluations, dated from November 2017 and February 2018.

“So are these ‘special evaluations.’ Open records requests were made for my personnel files, and satisfied,” Fitzgerald wrote, noting it was very strange that he was now being asked to sign a 2017 and February 2018 evaluation.

He asked Dickerson, “Do you not agree?”

“No comment — doing my job,” Dickerson responded.

That the city claimed Fitzgerald failed to manage the police department budget but yet refused proposals he made to reduce the budget. That included a proposed reduction in Price’s $800,000 five-officer security detail.

“The Mayor’s security detail exceeds that of many celebrities and rock stars,” the lawsuit states. “Yet when Dr. Fitzgerald asked that the Mayor’s five-cop (plus) security detail be reduced so that the officers could be reassigned for other purposes, thereby eliminating the need to add Police Officers, the City refused and instead removed Dr. Fitzgerald’s single-person part-time security detail.”

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