FORT LAUDERDALE — After months of denying the existence of a complaint that a police officer filed against an assistant city manager, the city of Fort Lauderdale has finally produced the complaint to the South Florida Times.
The city’s denials – which stood in contrast to a recorded interview and documents supporting the complaint – raised questions among union members about whether the city was protecting one of its managers by quashing a complaint filed against him.
The incident also raised questions about whether a city official tried to hide a public record, in violation of Florida’s broad open records law.
“The public records law does have some teeth. There can be serious consequences for wrongfully denying access to public records,” said Adria Harper, a director with the Florida First Amendment Foundation, a non-profit organization that advocates open records in public agencies.
The release of the complaint on May 1 came days after the newspaper had already obtained copies of them from confidential sources, and just days before the newspaper was set to publish a report about them.
The documents detail an Aug. 30, 2005 memo that Detective Nina Justice filed, complaining about the actions of Assistant City Manager David Hebert. The complaint alleges that Hebert acted unprofessionally toward Justice and other officers on Aug. 27, 2005.
Justice was one of the officers helping to maintain order at Joseph C. Carter Park that day as the city distributed ice to residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma, when many residents had lost electricity due to storm damage.
Justice said in the audio recording that she filed her memo in response to a complaint against her that Hebert filed with the chief of police.
The South Florida Times has made repeated requests for a copy of Hebert’s complaint against Justice, but has not yet received it.
Justice’s memo was addressed to police Capt. Michael Gregory, and was copied to a police union official, the president of the Fort Lauderdale Black Police Officers Association, and Bates.
Justice’s complaint alleges that Hebert improperly yelled at her and other officers, ordering them to move citizens out of the way so that a truck carrying more ice could get through to the park. Commissioner Carlton Moore was handing out ice during the incident, and witnessed the events, according to Justice’s complaint.
“The lack of professionalism displayed by Mr. Hebert towards us was shocking and embarrassing,’’ the complaint states.
Through a union representative, Justice declined comment to the South Florida Times.
Among the documents the city has now relinquished is a copy of Justice’s complaint, and a computerized audio recording of the statement that Robert Bates, director of the Office of Professional Standards (OPS), took from Justice after she was ordered to provide the statement.
OPS is supposed to be a neutral place for the city to investigate discrimination, harassment and other complaints from employees. The office can then make recommendations to the city manager about what kind of personnel action, if any, to take against the offender.
But Fraternal Order of Police union president Jack Lokeinsky, who accompanied Justice to the recorded interview with Bates but was not allowed to stay, said the OPS did not fulfill its duties concerning Justice.
“During the hour-long interrogation of Detective Justice, it is quite apparent that Mr. Bates never intended to investigate the complaint — only that he was attempting to quash it,’’ Lokeinsky said. “In fact, based on his questioning, it is apparent from listening to the tape recording that in that short period of time prior to taking Officer Justice’s statement, Mr. Bates had already spoken to Mr. Hebert about the incident.’’
The records turned up after the newspaper informed the city’s attorneys that it was about to publish specific details contained in the complaint, despite a March 18 memorandum from
Bates denying that the records existed.
Bates did not return several calls seeking comment, and never responded to repeated emails requesting an explanation.
Hebert did not respond to telephone calls about the incident, either.
“This is to advise that police officer Nina Justice, accompanied by a co-worker, visited the Office of Professional Standards some time after Hurricane Wilma, and spoke to us about an incident that took place during the distribution of ice at one of the city’s parks,” Bates wrote in the memo. “At that time, she specifically informed us that she was not interested in proceeding with filing a complaint; consequently, we did not open a file, nor make any notes of her visit to the office.”
The audio recording tells a different story.
Bates can be heard on the recording asking Justice about the complaint.
“Do you have an expectation of city response to this memo?’’ Bates asked her. “And if so, what is your expectation?’’
She said, “My expectation is just for the city to handle it like they handle any other letter or incident of this magnitude with any city employee. That’s it.’’
She added: “I want my side of the story to be heard…If nothing is done, if that’s how it’s normally taken place, that’s fine, But if something is done, that’s also fine. That’s out of my realm.’’
Union officials said they wondered what happened to the complaint, and why no conclusion had been reached. They have asked city commissioners to take up the matter.
“This was an interrogation, not the taking of a complaint, and I don’t know how we can send anyone else to that office,” Lokeinsky said. “That’s why we have sent a copy of the tape to the commissioners, and want them to hear this for themselves.’’
None of the five city commissioners – including Moore – would comment on the concerns from the union, but city spokesman Ted Lawson explained in an email how the documents disappeared, then finally materialized.
Lawson said, “Several people searched over an extended period of time and no one, including IT [Information Technologies], could find any files under Nina Justice.”
Lawson then detailed how OPS was eventually able to locate the files on its own by searching for them in the computer system under different titles. He attributed that process to the delay in providing the records.
Bates, who is also an attorney licensed with the Florida Bar, never indicated that any search had taken place, or that he was unable to locate the records.
Rather, his memo stated matter-of-factly that no complaint was ever filed, and that no documents existed.
Lawson’s explanations have not quieted concerns from the union, which represents Justice and 463 other sworn police officers in the city.
“This sounds a like a classic excuse to me, and it doesn’t pass the smell test. We need to find out exactly what took place,” Lokeinsky said.
Union officials demonstrated their frustration by meeting with prosecutors in the Broward State Attorney’s Office last week to file a complaint, seeking a criminal investigation.
“If they withheld public records, or tried to destroy them, then a crime may have been committed,” Lokeinsky said. “And what else has happened to complaints filed with the office?’’
Refusing to turn over documents that may fall under Florida’s public record statutes could carry criminal and/or civil penalties.
Harper, of the First Amendment Foundation, said in an email, “Section 119.10(1)(b), F.S., states that a public officer who knowingly violates the provisions of Section 119.07(1), F.S., is subject to suspension and removal or impeachment and commits a misdemeanor of the first degree, punishable by possible criminal penalties of one year in prison, or $1,000 fine, or both.’’
She continued: “And note that a state attorney may prosecute suits charging public officials with violations of the Public Records Act, including those violations which may result in a finding of guilt for a non-criminal infraction.”
Tim Donnelley, head prosecutor in the Special Investigations Unit of the Broward State Attorney’s office, offered a brief comment on the situation.
“We’re reviewing it,” he said.
Photo of union leader Jack Lokeinsky, above, by Elgin Jones/SFT Staff.