police chief defends suspension
Rick Scavetta, Register Staff September 28, 2000
BRIDGEPORT — Shelton Police Chief Robert A. Voccola spent two hours on the stand Wednesday in U.S. District Court defending his suspension of police union President Michael Lewis.
In a lawsuit filed in May, the union claimed Voccola violated Lewis’ right to free speech by suspending him for releasing information to the media in two separate incidents.
On Wednesday, Voccola testified that he suspended Lewis because the information he released was obtained in a manner that violated department policy.
After a full day of testimony before Judge Janet C. Hall, the injunction hearing was continued to Oct. 6.
The union has been at odds with Voccola since he took office in March 1999.
The suit claims that Voccola threatened to terminate Lewis for speaking out. "My first concern is being able to speak freely on the issues," Lewis said.
On April 26, Voccola suspended Lewis for five days without pay for speaking to the press about an internal investigation concerning Voccola’s son, and for releasing a secretly recorded audiotape that captured Voccola uttering an ethnic slur.
The internal investigation concerned the younger Voccola’s alleged involvement in an altercation in a Stratford diner earlier this year. At the time of the investigation, the son, also named Robert, was a Shelton police officer.
Voccola testified that Shelton officers obtained the report on the internal investigation from Stratford officers by conducting personal business on department time, which is against policy. He also said it’s against policy to release information about an internal investigation that has not concluded.
In the case of the audiotape, Voccola was reprimanded for making racially insensitive comments in a conversation with Sgt. John Youd, who recorded the conversation without Voccola’s knowledge.
"I tried to be one of the boys and speak with him on his level, something I usually don’t do," Voccola testified.
The union released the recording to the media in March.
Voccola later publicly apologized, received a letter of reprimand from Mayor Mark Lauretti, and was ordered to undergo sensitivity training.
On Wednesday, Voccola’s attorney, Shelton Corporation Counsel John Welch, said Lewis’ suspension did not involve free speech.
"The officer should have taken the tape to a superior," Welch said.
Should Hall determine that Lewis’ constitutional rights were violated, the case could go to a jury to award punitive damages.
Kathleen Eldergill, attorney for the union, aggressively interrogated Voccola.
When Voccola’s testimony differed from his earlier deposition, Eldergill referred him to passages in his deposition after he claimed to forget.
"I don’t know, but I’ll take your word for it," Voccola answered several times.
show that Voccola allegedly tampered with the hiring process to get his
son on the force, Eldergill called Ansonia Police Officer Chris Flynn and
Hamden Sgt. Gary Komoroski to the stand. The two officers were higher on
the list of potential candidates than Voccola’s son.