Three former Nevada Highway Patrol troopers filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday accusing ex-state public safety director Richard Kirkland and others of conspiring to force them out through harassment and reprisals in a "hostile" workplace.
A fourth state patrol employee still on the job also said in the suit filed in U.S. District Court in Reno she was unfairly targeted for reassignment and harassed by highway patrol management under Kirkland's administration.
The suit accuses Kirkland, current NHP Chief David Hosmer, the state of Nevada, it's Department of Public Safety and others of violating the troopers' civil rights by subjecting them to illegal retribution and violating their freedom of speech as government whistleblowers. It seeks unspecified damages.
Kirkland, the former Washoe County sheriff who retired as DPS director in June, said Monday evening he had not seen the lawsuit but that he considers it a "nuisance" and expects it be dismissed.
"I'm familiar with the people filing it. I feel this is without justification," Kirkland told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
"It's typical with the way these nuisance suits are filed so they can get maximum exposure without us having a chance to see it," he said.
"All I can say is that after 40 years in the business, this won't go very far," he said.
Kirkland said he may file a countersuit. He challenged the plaintiffs to agree to waive their privacy rights and open state records documenting "incidents of their difficulties with past and present commanders ... and sign releases to allow the state to release various reports and investigations that I understand they refer to." He declined further comment.
Hosmer could not immediately be reached for comment Monday evening. His home telephone number is unlisted.
The plaintiffs in the suit are:
- Stewart Handte, a 19-year NHP veteran and former head of the state troopers union who resigned last year.
- Matt Paszek, a 20-year law enforcement veteran, former NHP lieutenant and administrator who resigned in March
- Tony Dosen, a 14-year NHP veteran who resigned a year ago
- Lorie McGrath, a 20-year employee of the NHP
Jeffrey Dickerson and David Houston, two Reno lawyers, filed the suit on their behalf. The lawyers said they earlier filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Nevada Equal Rights Commission.
In a copy of the suit obtained by AP, Handte claims he was forced to resign after he was put on administrative leave without pay in July 2002 "following a lengthy retribution campaign of harassment and hostile working conditions."
He accused Kirkland "and his loyal administrators of directing a conspiracy to terminate trooper positions." He said Kirkland allegedly created a "hit list" of those troopers he wanted to force out.
Dosen said he too was subjected to the harassment and hostile working conditions, including "retaliation" against him in the form of a 30-day suspension for an inadvertent failure to pay a $2.98 pizza bill before leaving a restaurant.
Paszek said in the suit he suffered reprisals for his "non-support of the Kirkland administration's tactics."
The suit said Paszek and other troopers are entitled to whistleblower protection because they "disclosed improper activity including misuse of public funds, unsafe working environment, acts which threatened the public health and safety...."
Handte said the harassment intensified after Handte and others met with Gov. Kenny Guinn and state prosecutors in the Nevada Attorney General's office to report alleged misconduct by NHP administrators in September 2001.
The lawsuit said McGrath filed a discrimination complaint with the EEOC in January 2002 and reached a settlement agreement. But since then, she said she has been harassed and suffered retaliation, including the use of internal investigations as a pretext for retaliation, the lawsuit said.
Handte, Dosen and Paszek were among those who went public in May with complaints that Kirkland's heavy-handed management had divided the state law enforcement agency and led to poor morale and crippling turnover.
Supporters said at the time Kirkland had rescued a foundering agency by restoring discipline, accountability and refocusing on its primary goal of highway safety.
During Kirkland's three-year tenure, about one of every four uniformed troopers left the Nevada Highway Patrol and almost every top manager was replaced, according to an AP review of state records earlier this year.
"I have never seen any organization in such disarray from confusion and chaos or so demoralized, intimidated and unproductive than what is now a completely destroyed and dismembered Nevada Highway Patrol," Paszek said in May.
Kirkland shrugged off the criticism at the time, saying "it's part of the job."
"If you're going to make changes, you're going to make enemies," he said. "In my 40 years of working in government, what I have seen is very few people who are in a leadership position don't make enemies or have critics."
Hosmer said in May: "A lot of people didn't want to be held accountable. That's what it boils down to."