By Jill Harmacinski
LAWRENCE — Mayor William Lantigua says he will no longer pay legal bills for police officers being sued, including the bills for those officers involved in nine brutality cases pending in U.S. District Court.
The mayor says over the past three years, the city has spent $1.2 million to defend officers in civil cases. Instead, Lantigua says he will hold to the police unions' contract, which says the city only has to pay the $5,000 retainer for a patrolman and $7,500 for a superior officer. Lantigua says officers have two options when they are being sued — to use one of the three city attorneys or have their unions pay for the defense.
"From Day One, this should never have been allowed. We cannot continue to do business as usual," Lantigua said.
But Lantigua has hired his own outside counsel to defend the city against a complaint filed by the patrolmen's union with the state's Division of Labor Relations. The 10-count complaint alleges Lantigua's decision to cut the legal payments is
"designed to punish the union and its members for exercising their collective bargaining rights."
Patrolmen "are currently faced with the prospect of having to finance their own legal defense and personally satisfy any adverse judgments potentially rendered against them," wrote Mark Esposito, the lawyer representing the patrolmen.
Resolution of the legal payment issue "is particularly time-sensitive, as it is essential that the officers' rights are made clear so that they may determine how best to proceed regarding the defense of lawsuits pending against them in federal court," Esposito said.
A "long-standing past practice" and a city ordinance "mandates that employees, including police officers, be indemnified against legal judgments pertaining to the performance of their duties to the maximum extent permitted by law," he added.
According to Lantigua's office, the city paid $471,374 to Dwyer and Duddy, the legal firm used by the patrolmen's union, and $37,318, to McDonald & Associates, which represents the superior officer's union, in the fiscal year that ended last June. In the previous year, the city paid Dwyer and Duddy $287,649 and McDonald and Associates $38,353.
Lantigua has hired Philip Boyle, an attorney from the private Boston firm Morgan, Brown & Joy, to fight the union's complaint with the state. Last year, the city paid $53,186 to Morgan, Brown & Joy.
In many of the civil cases, the city, Police Department, police Chief John Romero and individual officers are named. The city recently settled one police brutality case, agreeing to pay $400,000 to the plaintiff, but admitted no wrongdoing.
Six civil trials involving police officers are scheduled to go forward in the next six months, including one brutality case, against officer Ivan Resto, which is supposed to start this week in federal court. These cases have the potential to result in expensive judgements or settlements that could ultimately be paid for by taxpayers.
City Councilor Daniel Rivera, chairman of the budget committee, said he was "inclined to support the administration on this, if it's going to save the city money." Rivera also said as the city struggled with budget cuts and layoffs last year, the police unions "made no concessions to help with the larger budgetary issue. And union leadership should know that."
"There was an outrage over laying off police officers. Meanwhile, we are paying Cadillac prices for attorneys," Rivera said.
Rivera acknowledged there are staffing issues in the city's attorney's office. A paralegal's position was cut from the office and Richard D'Agostino, a full-time assistant city attorney, is on medical leave.
On Dec. 16, 2010, City Attorney Charles Boddy sent a certified letter to the patrolmen's union law firm Dwyer and Duddy, stating "effective immediately the city of Lawrence was discontinuing use of the firm in the defense of Lawrence patrolmen against claims brought by third parties arising out of their employment."
Payments to the firm have "clearly exceeded" contract obligations and "are an unwarranted burden on the municipal budget," Boddy wrote.
Detective Alan Andrews, patrolmen's union president, and Lt. Scott McNamara, who leads the superior officer's union, were unavailable for comment for this story.
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