Former Mass. officer suing city for firing

Leon Stuart is alleging that his firing was in retaliation for complaints he made about alleged departmental misconduct


By Julie Manganis And Ray Lamont
Gloucester Daily Times

GLOUCESTER, Mass.  — A former Gloucester police officer is alleging that his firing earlier this year was in retaliation for complaints he made about alleged misconduct — including changes to police reports and labor violations by superior officers — and not over a physical struggle with a driver he had stopped while off-duty last December.

Leon Stuart's whistleblower suit, filed late last month, is the second filed in U.S. District Court by current or former officers this year against the Gloucester Police Department, which has reportedly been under investigation by state and federal prosecutors since 2016.

It names the city of Gloucester, interim police Chief John McCarthy and Lt. Jeremiah Nicastro, and seeks $950,000 in damages.

Attorney Leonard Kesten, who has been brought in by the city's legal department to defend the case, said he stands by the city's action to dismiss Stuart.

"Based on the facts as I know them, I'm confident that, when more of the facts do come out, the defendants will be vindicated," said Kesten, who handled legal aspects of the city's 2016 ouster of then-Chief Leonard Campanello.

Stuart was a 13-year veteran of the department and the head of the patrolman's union at the time of his June 19 dismissal.

The reason given by the city for his termination was his conduct during an encounter with a driver at the Gulf gas station on Washington Street on Dec. 28. Stuart, who was off-duty, was a passenger in a car when he saw a Malden man run a red light. Stuart approached the man in the gas station lot and then told him to wait while an on-duty officer arrived. A fight ensued.

But it wasn't until February that McCarthy began investigating the incident — something Stuart contends in his lawsuit was prompted by his own complaints about several matters, including allegations that he and other officers had been ordered to alter police reports to justify arrests, that a lieutenant had made a "grossly inappropriate" remark at the funeral of an officer in 2017, and that officials refused to sign off on his return to duty from a stress-related sick leave.

Funeral argument

Stuart had no prior disciplinary history with the department when, in May 2017, he and other officers attended the funeral of Gloucester Patrolman Heath Moseley.

Also attending the funeral was former Chief Campanello. According to Stuart's complaint, Detective Thomas Quinn spoke briefly with Campanello. After Quinn returned to the group of officers, all of them in uniform, his brother, Lt. David Quinn, made a sexually graphic remark to his brother regarding the interaction with Campanello, the suit alleges. An argument between the brothers ensued (both Quinns were later suspended for one day each).

Stuart, acting as union president, had urged the city's human resources director to take action against the lieutenant over what he said was inappropriate conduct witnessed by other officers and the public.

During that meeting, however, Lt. Quinn and Nicastro, then a sergeant, were eavesdropping outside the office, Stuart alleges.

Stuart made a complaint about that alleged behavior, and says now that instead of looking into it, the city told him that he was under investigation and asked him to answer a series of questions as to how the initial complaint came to be filed on behalf of the union. Stuart objected to those questions on grounds that the city had no right to information about internal union activities.

Stuart, according to the suit, then filed a prohibited practices complaint in response to the questions.

Shortly after that, he took a brief leave, citing stress. The suit says that the city and McCarthy did not initially approve his return to work despite a doctor's letter clearing him for duty.

Stuart complained to Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken in September 2017.

Altered reports

After his return to duty, Stuart was sent on an "unwanted guest" call, on Nov. 30, 2017. He says in his complaint that he saw no basis for an arrest and planned to send the unwelcome guest home in a cab. However, Sgt. Christopher Frates arrived and made a decision to arrest the person on a charge of being disorderly.

After the call, Stuart alleges, Nicastro, now a lieutenant, told him to alter his police report to indicate that he could not complete his interview of the man who was arrested.

Stuart said that amid widespread coverage of the Alli Bibaud case — which involved allegations that state troopers were ordered to alter the report of her arrest — he feared that, at a minimum, changing a report would be an ethical violation, if not a crime.

Several days later, on Dec. 2, Stuart alleges, Nicastro altered details of a report to support a charge of indecent assault and battery against a Gloucester man.

Stuart and another patrolman had gone to a call from a woman who said she awoke to find the man, who lived in the home, pulling up her daughter's nightgown or pajamas. Nicastro allegedly added a claim that the man touched the girl's abdomen, leading him to change the original charge from domestic assault and battery to indecent assault.

Nicastro later, during the course of an internal affairs investigation by APD Management, admitted to amending the police report, a portion of which was included in the pleadings filed in court.

Use of force

Less than a month later, on Dec. 28, the incident involving the driver from Malden occurred.

APD Management, run by retired Tewksbury police Chief Alfred Donovan, was again hired to investigate that incident.

Stuart, in the suit, questioned the qualifications of Donovan, who is not a licensed private investigator. He cited two recent Civil Service decisions in which hearing officers criticized Donovan's work. Stuart also says that, prior to the hearing, Donovan refused to share with either Stuart or his attorney any video of the fight taken from the Gulf station's surveillance cameras, giving them no chance to prepare a defense.

As Stuart interviewed with Donovan, Dr. Maria Haberfeld, "a recognized expert in the use of force," according to the lawsuit, was retained by the union and conducted a separate review of Stuart’s actions.

“It is my professional opinion that ... Officer Stuart’s actions were based on his departmental policies and procedures, as well as the use of force model followed by the GPD," Haberfeld wrote. " ... I therefore conclude that Officer Stuart’s actions were fully justified and his use of force against (the driver) was fully within the justified legal framework.”

Whistleblowing, dismissal

The situation had continued to deteriorate, with Stuart filing a complaint with the attorney general in March over the allegedly altered Nicastro report. Then, in mid-April, Stuart again contacted the attorney general's office, speaking with a Massachusetts State Police trooper to complain about what Stuart claimed were "ongoing improprieties in the GPD" as well as "continuing retaliation."

"I plead with the AG’s office to take a look at how things are handled within my department — public trust and integrity have been jeopardized," Stuart stated. "I also feel that I should be able to make my report and not be retaliated against … I have put my name on the line, trying to do the right thing.”

On May 8, his attorney formally notified the city of their intent to file suit under the whistleblower statute.

A week later, during a disciplinary hearing into the December fight, Stuart learned that the driver had not been the one to make the initial complaint against him. Instead, McCarthy said he became aware of the incident as a result of the Gloucester Daily Times' request for a report on the incident. (The newspaper had obtained that report and published a story Dec. 29.)

Stuart says in his complaint that after the city fired him, the chief took an unusual step and posted a bulletin announcing the firing.

Gloucester human resources director Donna Leete said she could not comment on the cause for the dismissal because the issue is a "personnel matter." But the notice from McCarthy, according to the lawsuit, indicated that Stuart was being fired “based upon the above findings of several policy violations — including the use of unnecessary and unreasonable force and the inaccurate reporting of the facts of a physical altercation he initiated on Dec. 28, 2017."

McCarthy said also he could not comment as the dismissal as it was a personal matter.

Last spring, Patrolmen Clifford Alves and Troy Simoes filed a suit against the city, alleging that Campanello, while chief, had singled them out for harsher treatment because of their military service. Kesten is also representing the city in that case.

After an initial response from the city alleging that there were no legal grounds for part of the complaint, the suit was amended; the city has filed a motion to dismiss the remaining allegations in the suit.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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