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Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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Ex-Officer Threatens To Sue Zephyrhills

ZEPHYRHILLS - A law firm representing a former city police officer is threatening to sue the city for more than $200,000 because officials have not rehired or reinstated him. Kenneth Fong, whose allegations of payroll discrepancies ignited a scandal that led to the resignation of former police Chief Russell Barnes in August, is seeking lost pay and compensatory damages from the city, according to a letter sent to City Manager Steve Spina. Tampa attorney Steven G. Wenzel also asserts in the letter that Fong was not reinstated or rehired by the department as retaliation for whistle-blowing activities that led to Barnes' resignation, the reassignment of a city detective and embarrassment to city officials. By Wenzel's calculations, the city should pay "well in excess of $200,000," even if Fong is reinstated as a police officer.
"I think he's trying to let them know he feels he has a very strong case and if taken to a jury, there's no jury that would believe I wasn't discriminated against," Fong said Monday. "Our argument is that they're not rehiring me because they don't want a whistleblower in the department. "But, my personnel file is clean, there have been more openings at the police department and yet I was refused for reinstatement and reemployment." The letter from Wenzel did not come as a shock to Spina, who forwarded copies to city council members and Mayor Cliff McDuffie. "He implied that this is what he was going to do," Spina said of Fong. Spina said City Attorney Joe Poblick had met with Brian Koji, of Tampa law firm Allen, Norton and Blue, which handles labor-related legal issues for the city. Spina said he did not know details of the conversation. Poblick said Monday that he would not comment on "pending or threatened litigation," and Koji did not return a phone call seeking comment. Fong, 40, has not worked full time since he was fired by the city in April 2007. He worked for the city about six months. City police officers can be fired for any reason during a one-year probationary period. An erratic-driving complaint led to Fong's termination. In June, however, Fong produced evidence that the charge was unfounded, and he was exonerated of the allegation by Spina. In July, Fong produced information that Barnes had allowed Sgt. Robert Perrault to teach at Pasco-Hernando Community College while being paid by the city. An internal affairs investigation concluded Barnes created a log documenting flex time that Perrault used to claim hours working for the city while teaching criminal justice courses at PHCC. The investigation concluded that Detective George MacKnight II also was paid by the city while teaching at PHCC. The city does not have a policy allowing flex time. Perrault resigned from the force to teach at Zephyrhills High School before the investigation was launched. MacKnight was suspended three days without pay and reassigned to patrol duty. Barnes, Perrault and MacKnight all denied wrongdoing. While Fong was exonerated of the erratic-driving charge, he also signed a release in which he agreed that the city had paid all money owed him. Fong also agreed not to sue the city and acknowledged that the city had no further obligations to him. The release "resolved all matters, including the possibility of reinstatement," Spina said in a letter to Fong in September. However, Fong later applied for a position with the Port Richey Police Department, which sent a "previous employment questionnaire" regarding Fong to Zephyrhills. On the form, Katrina Bouthot, Zephyrhills' director of administrative services, indicated that Fong was eligible for re-employment. "Ms. Bouthot continued by answering 'yes' to the question, 'Would you welcome the candidate as a law enforcement officer should an incident occur requiring police attention, granting that Officer Fong would be trained in the proper handling of police responsibilities?'" Wenzel said in his letter to the city.

Reporter Geoff Fox can be reached at (813) 779-4613.

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