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Longtime Garden City police chief, deputy chief threatened to sue city for $1.2 million

Garden City’s former police chief and deputy chief threatened lawsuits against two City Council members last year, a situation that stemmed from “a communication breakdown” that has since been resolved, according to Interim Police Chief Rick Allen.

It’s dirty laundry that city officials were not eager to talk about. The dispute, which began in fall 2013 and was settled out of court this spring, is old news, they said, and they’ve moved past the behind-the-scenes rancor.

But the issues raised aren’t inconsequential.

Allen and former Police Chief Jim Bensley, who quietly retired in March after 32 years with the department, 14 as chief, alleged in legal documents submitted to the city that Councilman Jeff Souza obtained confidential information from an independent investigation into the police department as part of an effort to damage their careers and reputations. Souza, who at the time was council president, said he felt obligated as a representative of his constituents to read the report.

They alleged they were deprived of their constitutional rights, in part, when Souza confronted the chief about his involvement in campaigning for a council candidate. In separate claims, they accused Councilwoman Pam Beaumont of retaliatory acts, including violating open meeting laws, engaging in “unprecedented scrutiny” of the affairs of the police department, taking “adverse actions” in the budget and “continuous defamation.”

“At the end of the day, the parties involved resolved this through our insurance carrier,” said Mayor John Evans, who was a city councilman for a decade before becoming mayor nearly 10 years ago. “There was a reconciliation of sorts.”

Bensley declined comment for this story, other than to say that the matter was handled internally and he received only attorney fees in the settlement. City Attorney Charlie Wadams said the only part of the settlement that is public record is the total amount paid to Bensley and Allen: $25,000.

“In the legal realm, that’s chump change or nuisance money,” Evans said. “That effort to get it resolved was worth $25,000. That’s the way the insurance company would look at it.”

It’s much less than Allen and Bensley were seeking in damages in the tort claims they submitted to the city in October. They alleged $300,000 in damages in each of four 2014 tort claims, which name Souza and Beaumont in their official capacities, for a total of $1.2 million.

A tort claim is notice of intent to sue. The Idaho Tort Claims Act requires any claims against state or local governments be made before filing a lawsuit, giving the government time to assess risk and an opportunity to settle cases before they go to court. After 90 days, a suit can be filed.

The first threat of legal action by Bensley and Allen came in November 2013. The pair amended the claims in October 2014 , adding new allegations and increasing the alleged damages in each claim from $125,000 to $300,000.

“All of this could have been resolved, at any point, if everybody would have just sat down and had a respectful conversation,” Souza said. “You didn’t have to go 500 days and five- or six-figures into lawyers. That doesn’t get you anywhere. It may have just been resolved that everyone agreed to disagree.”

SEEMED LIKE BUSINESS AS USUAL

Garden City Councilwoman Elfreda Higgins took office in January 2014. She said she was unaware of any disputes between Souza and Bensley until the fall of that year.

“The only time I knew anything about it was when we had an executive session, and they said we have these tort claims that have been filed,” said Higgins, who was twice previously elected to the City Council and also served in the Idaho House of Representatives from 2009 to 2012.

“I was very surprised because I thought everybody was very professional, and they acted professional towards each other,” Higgins said. “I didn’t know anything was going on.”

In their official capacities, Souza and Bensley interacted for about a decade. They saw each other at twice-monthly council meetings and had face-to-face conversations about a half-dozen times a year, Souza said.

At retirement, Bensley earned $127,000 a year, making him one of the highest-paid law enforcement officials in the state.

Souza, a financial adviser, was first elected to the City Council in 2005 and has been re-elected twice. Council members make $9,000 a year.

INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION

The first issue listed in Bensley’s tort claim against Souza — Allen’s torts are identical — had to do with Souza trying to obtain information about the police department related to a wrongful termination lawsuit filed in 2011 by former Garden City police officer Craig Wallace. Wallace later settled with the city for about $480,000.

Garden City asked the Idaho State Police to help investigate Wallace, a 19-year veteran. Wallace had a side business as a general contractor and was suspected of spending a significant amount of time working on that business while on duty as a police officer. Canyon County Prosecutor Bryan Taylor reviewed ISP’s report, which included information from Garden City police’s own investigation, and concluded it would be difficult to prove that Wallace committed any crime. “... There is no indication that he was not able to perform all of his other duties,” Taylor wrote. “Thus, ‘interference’ is difficult to establish.”

Mayor Evans asked the state Attorney General’s Office to conduct an independent investigation into allegations of harassment made by Wallace against officers with the Garden City Police Department.

“Anytime there’s a complaint against a police officer or anyone else, it’s standard operating procedure that you do an internal investigation,” Evans said. “You fact-find to see if the allegations have any merit.”

Wallace’s lawsuit, which became a federal suit, said members of the department “conspired to harass, intimidate and inflict emotional stress” on him after he was suspended for about eight months, pending an investigation into wrongdoing. He was reinstated March 10, 2011, but fired May 23, 2011.

In the suit, Bensley and Allen are alleged to have plotted to create grounds for terminating Wallace during a week that he was off work due to “significant and undue emotional stress.”

“They ordered a confidential informant to entice Wallace into showing a property Wallace owned and had listed through Silverhawk Realty while defendants Bensley and Allen conducted surveillance on Wallace,” the suit said.

The suit accuses Allen of talking to Wallace’s physician about protected health information, then disclosing and misrepresenting it to others in the department. The suit also alleges a violation of federal law protecting whistleblowers.

Councilman Souza said that he expected the City Council would be able to read the internal investigation report into alleged wrongdoing by members of the police department, but was denied the report when he asked the mayor to review it.

“It was conducted as an internal personnel matter — that’s why I didn’t distribute it,” Mayor Evans said. “You don’t ring the bell because you can’t unring the bell.”

Evans said the City Council isn’t privy to personnel files or reports. He intended to share the report by AG investigators only with the city attorney.

Bensley’s claim says Souza’s motive for seeking the report was to obtain information to damage Bensley’s career and reputation.

“Not only do I believe I am entitled to that information, I believe I have an obligation to know and understand it,” said Souza, who read the report after filing a public record request with the Attorney General’s Office.

The office denied the Statesman’s request to see the report. Because the investigation was part of an “internal personnel matter,” Garden City is the “proper custodian of the records,” Criminal Law Division Chief Paul Panther said in a June 26 letter to the Statesman. Evans declined to release the report to the Statesman.

Souza said he didn’t find anything nefarious in the report: “What the public needs to know: Nobody was censured. Nobody was fired. Nobody was disciplined. Nobody had any charges of civil or criminal wrongdoing.”

The Statesman filed a public record request with the city for the amount of the settlement with Wallace. City Attorney Wadams said he was unable to locate the settlement amount, but Evans said it was about $480,000. The mayor said the city did not concede any wrongdoing and Wallace did not get his job back.

CAMPAIGN QUESTIONS

In 2013, Bensley and officers in his department campaigned for the election of then-council incumbent Kathleen Simko. Souza and Higgins were the top vote-getters in that election; Simko did not win re-election.

Bensley said in the claim that he campaigned when he was off-duty and not in uniform. “This is a long-standing practice of the Garden City Police Department and involves the right to engage in free speech and expression of freedom of association,” the claim says.

Bensley said he was confronted via email by Souza Nov. 7, who allegedly demanded to meet with the police chief “to discuss what he called the moral and ethical implications of this practice in regard to my campaign involvement.”

Bensley alleges that when he declined to meet, Souza coerced a constituent to file complaints with the city.

Souza has a different account: He said Bensley requested an in-person meeting at the end of a phone conversation, and the police chief wanted the mayor and city attorney present. Souza sent the email to set that meeting up. He said the constituent complaints that Bensley referred to were correspondence to the chief from people Souza had told about police campaigning.

Souza said he still has concerns about the police chief’s influence over rank-and-file officers, who may have felt compelled to go along to get along.

“Was there any coercion on the part of Jim Bensley to get these officers to go out and campaign?” Souza said. “Were they coerced into getting involved in the political process? I don’t know, but I felt compelled to find out.”

Souza said he doesn’t think the police chief, who at the time lived in Boise, should be campaigning in an election that he can’t vote in.

Souza said he heard “negative feedback” about police officers campaigning when he was out knocking on doors. Higgins said she also received calls about police officers campaigning for Simko.

“They were not in uniform, but they did identify themselves as police officers,” Higgins recalled. She said she was surprised, but knew it wasn’t a violation of city code.

“If they would have asked to campaign for me, I would have told them ‘no,’ ” said Higgins. “I just wouldn’t have felt comfortable.”

Mayor Evans said police officer involvement in campaigns is authorized in the city’s employee handbook, and is an activity protected under the First Amendment.

RETALIATION THROUGH BUDGET?

Councilwoman Beaumont was drawn into the legal fray last year, when Bensley and Allen filed torts alleging that she, along with Souza, had engaged in a pattern of retaliation after their initial 2013 claims.

Among other things, Beaumont was accused of unprecedented scrutiny of the police department and its budget. The department has a $4 million budget; the overall city budget is $6.9 million.

Beaumont said she always closely questions budget items, and fellow council members confirmed that.

“I was very shocked at that (accusation),” Higgins said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s our responsibility to watch the people’s money and ask questions during budget meetings. She asked no more questions than I did. Pam and I always ask the most questions.”

Evans said budget decisions are collaborative, with at least three council members needed to pass appropriations.

“A council member doesn’t have any unilateral authority to do a single thing,” Evans said. “They have no control over personnel, budgets, anything, as an individual.”

Council members say today they are more than ready to move on.

“Anybody can make allegations, and that doesn’t make them true,” said Beaumont, now the council president. “To me, this is past history. This is seven months ago. It never went anywhere because the allegations weren’t true.”

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