The Huntsville Item, Huntsville, TX

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June 8, 2010

Former HPD officer files lawsuit

City manager, council members named in case

HUNTSVILLE — Former Huntsville Police Captain Wes Altom has filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas against City Manager Bill Baine, Mayor Pro Tem Lanny Ray and City Councilmember Jack Wagamon, both in their official capacities and as individuals, alleging violations of several state and federal codes during the process of his termination.

The suit was filed May 28 by Altom and his attorney, Gregory B. Cagle, a regional attorney for the Texas Municipal Police Association who represented Altom during his employee grievance hearing against the city council on May 3.

Altom was terminated by Baine April 9 after a period of suspension. Baine listed the cause of termination as a “general dissatisfaction” with veracity of information during the “Shenanigans event” and cited a lack of faith and confidence in Altom as a police officer.

The city council voted 6-1 in favor of upholding the termination at the May 3 hearing, with Councilmember Mac Woodward voting “no.” Councilmembers Melissa Templeton and Tom Cole were not present.

The suit alleges that the defendants (Baine, Ray and Wagamon), violated the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, Title 42 of the United States Code, Chapters 614 and 180 of the Texas Government Code and the Texas Whistleblower Act.

The 13-page document outlining the lawsuit devotes significant detail to the arrest of George H. Russell in Huntsville in September of 2008, and alleges that Altom was terminated as a result of his involvement with the arrest.

“Plaintiff reported the criminal acts of George Russell, a prominent citizen in the community, and further assisted with the arrest and prosecution of Mr. Russell,” the suit reads. “Plaintiff made the report to an appropriate law-enforcement authority, specifically the Walker County District Attorney’s Office and Mr. Russell was indicted for multiple felony offenses as a result. Plaintiff was terminated or suffered an adverse personnel action because of the report.”

The suit asks the court to find that Altom was wrongfully terminated “in violation of his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution  and in violation of Texas Government Code Chapter 614.”

The suit also requests an injunctive relief stating that the City of Huntsville “institute policies to insure they do not discharge or discipline current or former employees for the exercise of rights guaranteed under the Constitution or the Texas Government Code” and that the city “implement procedures to protect its current, past and future employees from the city’s violation of employee’s constitutional right.”

The suit alleges that Altom suffered injuries and damages including lost earnings, loss of earning capacity, damage to reputation in the past and future, mental anguish in the past and future, loss of pension or retirement benefits and exemplary damages.

The suit seeks a judgment including injunctive relief, actual and exemplary damages, reasonable attorney fees, prejudgment and postjudgment interest, costs of suit and all other relief the court deems appropriate. The suit also demands a trial by jury.

City Secretary Lee Woodward said Baine had no comment on the suit other than to say that the case was “without merit.”

Ray referred all questions to Huntsville City Attorney Leonard Schneider, who is representing the city in the matter.

Schneider said that the suit has been submitted to the Texas Municipal League Intergovernmental Release Pool (TML-IRP) for review.

“TML-IRP normally provides a defense to claims such as Mr. Altom’s,” Schneider said. “To that end Mr. Altom’s petition has been submitted to the TML-IRP for review and assignment of an authorized attorney to defend the city and individuals.”

Wagamon also responded:

“The charges are ridiculous and it is unwise in my opinion to bring (the suit),” Wagamon said.

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