Shelton cop dispute has its day in court
 MICHAEL P. MAYKO mmayko@ctpost.com   Friday, October 27, 2000

BRIDGEPORT -- Shelton's police union president criticized the city's police chief
to draw public attention to what was going on in the department.

At least that's what Kathleen Eldergill, the lawyer for Police Union President
Michael Lewis, argued before U.S. District Judge Janet Hall on Thursday.

Shelton Corporation Counsel Thomas Welch said Lewis' constant criticism on the
union Web site, in the media and to union members was meant to disrupt the
department and drive out Police Chief Robert A. Voccola. 

For nearly two hours Thursday, Hall peppered both sides with questions. Afterward, the judge said she
was hopeful of issuing a ruling within a "couple of weeks."

Earlier this year, Lewis sued Voccola and the city for violating his right of free speech by suspending him
for five days without pay and threatening him with termination because of his constant criticisms. Eldergill
wants the judge to issue an order restraining Voccola and the city from violating Lewis' and the union's
free speech protections. 

Hall said her decision would turn on the "balances of interests."

If the judge rules in favor of Lewis, she asked Eldergill and Welch to try to agree on a proposed order.

Following the hearing, Eldergill said the burden was on the city to show Lewis spoke recklessly. She
contends he did not.

Eldergill said that, when Lewis called the chief a racist, he had a tape recording of the chief using the
Italian word for eggplant when referring to blacks. She said that when Lewis accused the chief of tainting
the selection when his son, Robert J. Voccola, was hired for a patrol job, Lewis found evidence that
better candidates were bypassed.

"Everything [Lewis raised] is a matter of public concern," Eldergill said.

It was later determined that Voccola's son had received points for a college degree that he did not have.
The younger Voccola resigned.

Welch argued Lewis' criticism often turned ugly. On the union Web site, Lewis published a photo of two
hooded Ku Klux Klansmen, which he captioned as "the [Chief] Robert Voccola and [Shelton Mayor]
Mark Lauretti's Fan Club." The union president also claimed his criticism wouldn't stop until the "chief
planted his butt in Arizona."

"Did his statements disrupt operations?' Hall asked. 

Eldergill said "this was not a police department where everything was rosy Before Michael Lewis made
any statements there was a whole group that had no confidence in the chief."

She maintained that "the fact the chief made racial remarks should offend the public and did."

Welch claimed Lewis' language added a disruptive fire to the 50-member department already deemed
dysfunctional by an independent study. 

"Does a police officer check his First Amendment [rights] because the department needs to be turned
around?" Hall asked Welch. "I don't think the law says a union leader is outside the First Amendment
because he didn't make [his language] pretty or nice."