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Meriden cop who filed complaint is fired

MERIDEN — One of two police officers who complained to the city about former officer Evan Cossette and disparate treatment in the department has been fired.

Officer Donald Huston was terminated after an independent review of numerous internal affairs complaints found he violated department rules on truthfulness and conduct.

The city hired a former New Hampshire police chief, Charles Reynolds, to conduct disciplinary hearings for Huston and now-retired officer Brian Sullivan in August and to issue a final ruling, which was announced Tuesday.

Reynolds sustained the charges of improper conduct — “making public statements which are known to be false or to be a reckless disregard of known facts related to public policy.” He also found that the officers violated rules and regulations through conduct which “tends to undermine the good order, efficiency and discipline of the department or which brings discredit upon the department or any member of the department, constituting conduct unbecoming an employee.”

Attorneys for the officers argued they had brought a matter of public concern to light, but Reynolds wrote in his decision that nothing they presented “sufficiently contradicts or invalidates the fact that the letters in question contained considerable inflammatory and unfounded allegations regarding the operations of the MPD and its members.”

He also found that the complaints “appear more of a ‘shotgun approach, even a reckless approach, at putting forth allegations admittedly by you, often based on rumor, locker room talk, or from people whose names you do not remember.”

Huston and Sullivan complained in two letters to City Manager Lawrence Kendzior in 2011 that Cossette, son of police chief Jeffry Cossette, had a pattern of using excessive force on prisoners that went unchecked by the department’s internal affairs process.

A jury convicted Cossette in June of using excessive force and falsifying a report on the arrest of Pedro Temich. He was sentenced last month to serve 14 months in federal prison and has appealed his conviction.

Cossette is also named in three civil suits involving the victim of the criminal case and two other men who claimed he used excessive force against them.

Huston and Sullivan’s letters alleged other disparate treatment within the department that didn’t involve Cossette and wasn’t substantiated. Sullivan retired last month on a medical pension and city officials have said he can’t be disciplined after retirement. He would have been terminated with Huston and Reynold’s decision will remain on his personnel record, according to city officials.

A May 2010 surveillance video released by Temich’s attorney days after the officers’ submitted their complaint, showed Cossette shoving Temich onto a concrete bench in a police holding cell. The video, which was replayed on statewide media outlets, thrust the city and the department into the spotlight. It also captured the attention of state police and the FBI, which launched separate investigations.

The city hired former federal prosecutor Thomas Daily to conduct his own probe. The investigator found that the discipline Cossette received for the Temich incident — a letter of reprimand and four hours of officer training — was not unreasonable. Daily also did not find any evidence that Cossette falsified a report.

Daily also cleared the department of the other allegations mentioned in the officers’ letter and recommended the city adopt an anti-nepotism policy and rotate internal affairs officers.

At an August 2012 press conference, the city announced Daily’s findings and simultaneously released the findings of the Internal Affairs investigation into Sullivan and Huston.

“The city has followed every best practice all along since 2011,” said Kendzior. “The city has acted impartially and has retained the services of independent experts to handle potential, apparent and actual conflict situations, without any attempt to influence in any way the outcome of any investigation proceeding or decision.”

Huston and Sullivan could not be reached for comment.

The two officers wrote the letter because they disagreed with discipline they had received and spoke with fellow officers to gather more information, including taping one officer in a locker room without his knowledge.

Reynolds rejected the claim that Huston and Sullivan were acting in the public interest as whistle blowers because they did not become concerned or start looking into these issues until they faced their own disciplinary actions. He also found that neither officer made any effort to mitigate the damage caused to fellow officers.

But attorneys for the two police officers accused the city and the police department of going to excessive lengths to discipline the officers in retaliation for the Evan Cossette investigation. They also argued the two officers’ letters are covered under the First Amendment because once Cossette was indicted by a federal grand jury it became a public concern.

“I’m not surprised,” union attorney Eric Brown said of Reynolds’ decision. “Minds were made up well before the hearings. This is a continuation of the retaliation. I can’t wait to get the matter into arbitration. The city’s decision is a clear violation of state whistleblower laws.” Brown represents Huston and Sullivan.

The two officers have also filed a retaliation lawsuit against the department’s top brass and the city. A judge denied a request to block the hearings. But according to attorney Frank Cannatelli, who also represents Huston and Sullivan, the termination means the lawsuit can move forward.

“The termination is a derogatory job action,” Cannatelli said. “You need to look at the totality of everything; Holding the discipline in abeyance to make him look like a bad officer to the U.S. Attorney’s office and making life miserable for him.”

According to Cannatelli, Huston is on leave from the department for stress. His last day on the force is Friday.

He said he agrees with Brown that the complaint letters aren’t a fireable offense.

“That’s what a jury is going to have to decide,” he said. “Is it a matter of public concern, or was it a personal vendetta? I do think there was a vendetta against them.” (203) 317-2255 Twitter: @Cconnbiz

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