Sussex County Delaware

Dickerson Files Suit
Against Fenwick Island
Fenwick Island Town Council ...

Former Chief Alleges
Council Violated Rights

SC Online Content Editor

Fenwick Island Police Chief George H. Dickerson Jr. has filed a lawsuit against the Town of Fenwick Island and current and former town council members, charging that he was fired in retaliation for his attempts to stop the town from illegal use of federal grants.

Dickerson's suit, filed Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2002, in U.S. District Court in Wilmington, lists the town and council members Peggy J. Baunchalk, Harry J. Haon III, Richard L. Griffin, Peter G. Frederick, Theodore J. Brans, James H. Elliott and Vicki Carmean. The council members are being sued as private parties and as council members.

Town attorney Tempe Steen said on Friday, Nov. 22, 2002, that the town had not seen the lawsuit yet and that she would not comment on the suit. Neither council president Peg Baunchalk or Public Safety Commissioner Henifin could be reached for comment.

The 15-page suit chronicles alleged abuses of COPS grant funds beginning in 2001. According to the suit, the council allegedly used $30,000 in COPS grants -- obtained to help the town expand its police force from seven officers to nine -- to supplant its regular budget in 2001. That, according to the suit, signed by Wilmington attorney Richard Wier, is a violation of federal law.

The alleged abuses have also triggered an investigation by the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General.

Dickerson, the lawsuit says, told Baunchalk and Henifin in April 2001 that such use of the funds would be illegal, but the budget for fiscal year 2001-02, approved in June 2001, includes use of the $30,000 for regular salaries.

The suit further states that the council created a fictitious line item in the budget called "Interest Income," totaling $48,000, on the revenue side, and on the expense side listed two line items for $24,000, to total $48,000.

Dickerson then reported the council's actions to Sam Beaman, compliance officer for the COPS program in the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

It was then, Dickerson's suit says, that the council began to retaliate against him by removing his authority over the day-to-day operation of the police force.

Henifin and Baunchalk, according to the lawsuit, redrafted the town's Authorities and Delineation Guide, under which Dickerson had operated since he took the helm of the police department in 1993.

From that time on, Henifin took an active role in the police department, "barraging Chief Dickerson with repetitive memos and disrupted the police department's chain of command," the suit says. Henifin allegedly also "began attempting to control day-to-day operations of the department," including approval of daily schedules for the department, according to the suit.

After half the officers in the department resigned in January 2002, Henifin continued to require 24-hour coverage from the remaining staff -- Dickerson, his second-in-command William Manning, and Sgt. Michael Bruette.

According to Dickerson's lawsuit, that overtime was approved for March, April and May, but the council has now asserted it was not authorized.

In an April 22 letter from Councilman Frederick to Dickerson, obtained by Sussex County Online, Frederick said that Dickerson was charging the town overtime for hours spent at home on call.

In an interview on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2002, Dickerson said the council had authorized him to charge the town for those overtime hours.

Dickerson, the suit says, wrote Delaware Attorney General M. Jane Brady on March 20, charging that the council had violated the Freedom of Information Act . After being told by Henifin he would not be allowed to participate in the formation of the 2002-03 budget process, Dickerson saw that the COPS grant was to be handled the same way as the previous year, the suit claims.

At that point, Dickerson reported the alleged violations to Colm Connolly, U.S. Attorney for Delaware, as well as to David Glendinning, Supervisory Special Agent of the Fraud Detection Office, Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General. Glendinning, the suit says, began asking town officials for information on hiring practices and other issues related to the COPS grant.

Also around this time, Dickerson began to get what he calls "false letters of reprimand" from town council. He has asserted that prior to his filing the FOIA and COPS-grant-related complaints, he had no letters of reprimand in his personnel file -- and at a town council meeting invited residents to examine his file for themselves.

In May, Brady's office concluded the council had violated the F.O.I.A. by holding closed meetings without proper notice and for denying access to the minutes of those meetings. Ten days after that ruling was issued, Dickerson informed the public, through a written report issued during a public meeting, of steps being taken to address the police department's vacancies.

In early June, Dickerson received a reprimand calling the report "Inappropriate Release of Information to the Public." He was also placed on probation, the suit says.

At the next council meeting, Dickerson told residents he had been retaliated against and asserted that he had never been reprimanded until he filed the complaints. At that point, the public only knew of the F.O.I.A. complaints, not the alleged COPS grant abuses.

When he asserted that he had never been reprimanded until the complaints, council members Baunchalk, Henifin and Frederick retorted that he had. This prompted Dickerson to claim in his lawsuit that the three had committed both libel and slander by their statement in the council meeting and in the subsequent minutes of the meeting. Meanwhile, two Fenwick Island residents reviewed Dickerson's files and confirmed his assertion.

On Aug. 21, the suit says, Henifin ordered Dickerson to meet with him and council member Griffin "and provide them with various documents to which they had no legal right."

Dickerson told them he would not comply, and Henifin demanded that he turn over his keys to departmental files, including criminal traffic and personnel files -- which were not legally accessible to Henifin as a civilian, the suit claims. Henifin claimed Dickerson's efforts to tape record the meeting constituted insubordination, and suspended him indefinitely.

On Aug. 26, the council fired Dickerson, according to the lawsuit. This contradicts the council's assertion, three weeks later, that he was suspended and was still an employee of the town. Dickerson's lawsuit says he was fired for his actions on Aug. 21 and 22 -- which the suit calls "protected conduct" under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit says a public hearing on Dickerson's termination, set for Dec. 4, is "a sham." It also claims council members have said they will uphold the firing "regardless of the evidence he presents and regardless of whether their actions are illegal or fraudulent."

The lawsuit lists nine counts ranging from breach of good faith to violation of whistleblowing laws. They are:

  • Denial of due process: The suit claims the reasons the council gave for Dickerson's were "vague and ambiguous," and calls the Dec. 4 hearing "meaningless and a sham."

  • Violation of federal code in firing Dickerson;

  • Denial of Dickerson's right to free speech under the First Amendment;

  • Violation of state whistleblowing laws through alleged retaliation against Dickerson and later firing him when he claimed they had violated state and federal laws;

  • Breach of good faith and fair dealing by allegedly falsifying Dickerson's record, issuing false reprimand letters, and dismissal for false reasons;

  • Violation of conspiracy laws by agreeing to retaliate against Dickerson and other actions mentioned above;

  • Committing slander and libel by claiming Dickerson's personnel file contained reprimands before he began to file charges against them;

  • Wrongful termination; and

  • Violation of fair labor standards by failing to pay him overtime.

Dickerson declined further comment on his lawsuit. But Manning, his second-in-command, said he has filed a F.O.I.A. complaint against Henifin for his refusal to allow him to speak at the Nov. 15 town council meeting. He has also turned over information to Wier on Henifin's comments at that meeting. Henifin said Manning had been passed over for consideration as Officer in Charge because of issues of "trust and communication" between Manning and the council.

"I hope the lawsuits will show the town councils throughout the state they have to govern and rule within the laws and not become vigilantes to suit their own purposes," Manning said. "I do support the chief and the townspeople in their fight against the town council. (The town council's) actions are demeaning and illegal."

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