NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A former New Orleans Police officer claims in court that she was fired for testifying to a criminal jury that a colleague had confessed to lying to a federal grand jury, to hurt a lieutenant who had been implicated in the coverup of the post-Hurricane Katrina police shooting and burning of Henry Glover.
Catherine Beckett sued Police Superintendent Ronal W. Serpas and the City of New Orleans, in Federal Court. They are the only defendants.
Beckett claims that in September 2010, her former platoon sergeant, Erin Reilly, who had retired from the New Orleans Police Department, asked her to lunch and confessed lying to a federal grand jury.
“Specifically, Ms. Reilly told plaintiff that she (Ms. Reilly) had lied to a federal grand jury relative to the actions of retired NOPD Lieutenant Robert Italiano in connection with the death of Henry Glover. Ms. Reilly advised plaintiff that she bore ill will against Lt. Italiano because of a dispute the two former NOPD supervisors had during the 2006 Mardi Gras season,” the complaint states. (Parentheses in complaint.)
The complaint continues: “On the date Ms. Reilly and plaintiff were having lunch, retired Lt. Italiano was being prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana on one count of obstruction of a federal investigation and one count of making false statements to FBI agents relative to the Glover matter. Lt. Italiano’s trial was scheduled to commence (and did commence) on November 8, 2010.” (Parentheses in complaint.)
The charred body of Henry Glover, 31, was found in a burned Chevy Malibu in a New Orleans suburb on Sept. 2, 2005, four days after Hurricane Katrina.
In 2009, five New Orleans Police officers were indicted in the shooting death, burning and cover-up, including Lt. Italiano.
Three officers were convicted. Italiano was acquitted on all counts.
Beckett’s complaint states: “Ms. Reilly was completely mistaken as to the reasons for her estrangement from plaintiff. Prior to their lunch, plaintiff was completely unaware that Ms. Reilly had testified before the federal grand jury in connection with the Glover matter. Furthermore, plaintiff had no reason to be protective of Lt. Italiano since she had never worked with or for him and did not know him.
“Following her lunch with Ms. Reilly, plaintiff attempted to determine which attorney was defending Lt. Italiano in the federal prosecution. Although plaintiff did not know whether Ms. Reilly was being truthful in stating that she had lied before a federal grand jury or even if Ms. Reilly had actually even testified before a grand jury, plaintiff felt a moral obligation to relay this information to Lt. Italiano’s attorney so that Ms. Reilly’s statement could be investigated. When plaintiff learned that Lt. Italiano was being represented by Steven Lemoine, she contacted Mr. Lemoine to advise him as to what Ms. Reilly had said about her grand jury testimony.
“Subsequently, Mr. Lemoine subpoenaed plaintiff to testify at Lt. Italiano’s trial. Despite the fact that prior to opening statements in Lt. Italiano’s trial, both Mr. Lemoine and plaintiff identified plaintiff in court and in the presence of the federal prosecuting attorneys as a witness for Lt. Italiano, no member of the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office or the Justice Department made any effort to interview plaintiff during the four-week period between said identification and plaintiff’s testimony on December 2, 2010.”
Beckett says she told the truth in her testimony, which was an exercise of free speech protected by the First Amendment, and, “Given that plaintiff’s speech occurred in open federal court during a criminal proceeding, it clearly involved a matter of public concern.”
The complaint continues: “During the course of cross-examining plaintiff, Assistant United States Attorney Michael Magner, one of the prosecutors in Lt. Italiano’s case, intimated that the federal government intended to investigate plaintiff for misprision of a felony despite the fact that Mr. Magner knew that plaintiff had not committed any crime.”
The jury acquitted Italiano and one other officer, and convicted three, on Dec. 9, 2010. (20)
One week later, on Dec. 16, defendant Chief Serpas issued a news release indicating that he had received a briefing from federal authorities on the Glover case, Beckett says in her complaint.
“Serpas indicated that, based upon this briefing, he was reassigning plaintiff, along with five other NOPD officers to desk duty pending a ‘full investigative review.’ …
“Sergeant Danny Wharton of NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau (hereafter ‘PIB’) conducted the ‘investigation’ of plaintiff. The report prepared by Sgt. Wharton reflects that during his investigation Sgt. Wharton interviewed only one witness, namely the plaintiff, on January 27, 2011. Prior to submitting his report, Sgt. Wharton did not interview Ms. Reilly, Lt. Italiano, Mr. Lemoine, Mr. Magner or anyone else with the FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office or Justice Department,” the complaint states.
Beckett says Serpas fired her, by letter, on Nov. 17, 2011.
“In the termination letter, defendant Serpas claimed that he was terminating plaintiff because she had violated three rules of NOPD, specifically: Rule 4: Performance of Duty, paragraph 4, Neglect of Duty, sub-paragraph c1; Rule 2: Moral Conduct, paragraph 9-Failure to cooperate/withholding information; and Rule 5: Restricted Activities, paragraph 10. Testifying on behalf of defendants. In fact, the stated reasons were mere pretext as defendant Serpas was well aware that plaintiff had violated none of these rules nor any other rules of NOPD,” the complaint states.
“In actuality, defendant Serpas terminated plaintiff in retaliation for plaintiff having exercised her free speech rights under the First Amendment by testifying for Lt. Italiano. In the same manner that Mr. Magner was displeased with plaintiff for stating facts which did not comport with the federal government’s version of the events concerning Ms. Reilly’s interactions with Lt. Italiano, defendant Serpas wished to punish those not aligned with the federal prosecution of the Glover matter.
“Defendant Serpas maintained the employment of other NOPD officers who had actually violated rules of NOPD because those officers testified favorably to federal prosecutors. Not only were these officers not disciplined, they were not even subject to an investigation by PIB.”
Beckett seeks lost wages, future wages, and punitive damages for free speech violations, wrongful discharge, pain and suffering, damage to her reputation, malice and recklessness.
She is represented by Brett Prendergast of New Orleans.