TRACY GORDON FOX; Courant Staff Writer
Copyright 2006 The Hartford Courant Company
The victory of a state trooper who recently won a $450,000 settlement in a free-speech case will have repercussions beyond the Connecticut State Police, legal experts say.
``It will enhance the rights of all whistleblowers in government and will give courage to government employees who see wrongdoing and who have been afraid to say anything,'' said attorney John R. Williams of New Haven.
Roger Vann, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said his colleagues in the state and nation noted the settlement, and ``the comments were that it seemed to be a very significant settlement and development for free speech rights for state employees.''
``It was a great day for the Bill of Rights,'' Vann said. ``It just underscores the importance of recognizing that people in all professions, whether public or private, have free speech rights.''
The case stemmed from a complaint lodged by Trooper Mark Lauretano, who alleged that his supervisors violated his right to free speech by preventing him from speaking about a sexual assault case involving a boy at Hotchkiss School in Salisbury in 1997. He also alleged that the department retaliated against him for seeking to exercise that right.
Other public agencies should take notice of the court ruling and the recent settlement with Lauretano, experts say. The settlement, which included attorney's fees, was reached in January, but made public this month.
``This absolutely applies to all government agencies,'' Williams said. ``It's a federal court ruling, and the state of Connecticut accepted the settlement, not for chump change, but for major, major money. I think it will be hugely significant for Connecticut.''
Although the case is not binding in federal districts in other states, it could be cited in legal arguments brought in similar cases, legal experts say.
Judge Dominic J. Squatrito, in U.S. District Court in Hartford in 2004, ruled that a state police policy restricting troopers from talking to the media was unconstitutional.
Squatrito imposed a permanent injunction ending the state police media policy, and enjoined the state police from preventing employees from speaking out freely on matters of public concern. The judge said the department's administrative and operations manual violated troopers' right to free speech.
``We should have those freedoms and those rights,'' said state police union President David LeBlanc, adding that the Lauretano settlement should help ensure troopers' free speech rights.
Lauretano in 1999 sued the state, Public Safety Commissioner Arthur Spada, Cols. John Bardelli and Edmond C. Brunt and Lt. Col. Timothy Barry for their refusal to allow him to speak about the investigation of how he conducted the Hotchkiss case, even though they spoke publicly about it.
After Squatrito's judgment, Lauretano was prepared to go to trial for damages, but Attorney General Richard Blumenthal decided to abandon his appeal of the ruling.
``My guess is the attorney general's office had to be aware their chances on appeal were slim,'' said attorney Karen Lee Torre, who represented Lauretano. ``It is a hefty price, but all I can tell you is I offered to settle these cases early on, and every time my efforts are rebuffed.''
Torre and Lauretano declined to discuss the settlement amount, but a portion of it went to attorney's fees.
Blumenthal at first said he was appealing the decision at the request of Public Safety Commissioner Leonard C. Boyle.
But he said he decided to settle to ``avoid a lengthy, costly litigation when there can be an agreement that serves the public interest.''
``This settlement, in our view, serves the public interest,'' he said.
Blumenthal said he would advise other state agencies to establish policies similar to the one being put in place by the state police.
``Agencies should be aware of this settlement and the general First Amendment principles that have been applied,'' he said.
Lauretano, who is Salisbury resident state trooper, said he has had calls from troopers and employees of other agencies since the settlement ``because a lot of them are facing the same kind of criticism.''
``They know how important it is,'' Lauretano said of the decision and the settlement. ``It's a mentality that infests the agency,'' he said Thursday.
He and other troopers believe they now have more freedom to speak, but he said he is troubled that the state police has not changed its media policy in its administrative and operations manual.
Boyle said the state police reached an agreement with Lauretano on what the manual should say regarding media policy. He said the department wants to make sure the policy satisfies its agreement with Lauretano and the judge's ruling.
The media policy ``is not done yet, although it will be very shortly,'' Boyle said. ``The policy is much more expansive and allows employees great access to the media.''
The Lauretano case is not the first in which the state has had to pay a significant amount in a free speech case. In 1998, Supervisory Inspector Gregory Dillon sued Chief State's Attorney John M. Bailey, claiming violation of First Amendment rights, and was awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages. He eventually reached a $1.5 million settlement.
Dillon was a whistleblower who alleged that federal agents on a joint state-federal fugitive task force were fabricating information on arrest warrant affidavits.
Torre said the case against the state police is significant for government employees statewide and nationwide because it addresses flawed media policies, not just individual whistleblowers.
``It's a federal court precedent that can add assistance to law enforcement employees who go to work every day and who are under the chokehold of these agencies,'' she said.
March 14, 2006
Conn. trooper, whistleblower wins $450,000 settlement