Bluffton Police Chief David McCallister photographed in 2010 at a press conference when the department announced the arrest of suspects who police believed were responsible for a spate of arsons and burglaries.(Photo: File, The Island Packet)
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A Bluffton police officer has sued the town, police chief David McAllister and town manager Anthony Barrett, saying he was punished for filing complaints against the chief.
Officer Christian Gonzales alleges he was unfairly suspended, demoted and forced to take a pay cut in retaliation for complaining about McAllister to Barrett. The suit, filed June 13, doesn't specify the amount of damages sought.
Gonzales' suit blames the chief for a litany of offenses, saying that McAllister harassed, humiliated and even shoved him once.
In a press release Wednesday, Barrett said an investigation that included interviews with 10 witnesses found McAllister did not shove the officer, a finding later upheld by a grievance panel selected in accordance with town policy.
The sanctions against Gonzales were deserved because he filed a false report about the chief, Barrett's release said.
"It is unfortunate that Mr. Gonzales has chosen such a course of action after the Town chose not to fire him after his 'shoving' allegations were found to be meritless," Barrett said in the release.
Gonzales' suit comes on the heels of another court case involving a Bluffton police officer who claimed she was terminated as a result of age discrimination. That officer, who was awarded a total of about $236,000, claimed numerous comments made by McAllister showed she was a victim of age discrimination.
Attempts to reach McAllister on Wednesday were unsuccessful. The chief announced in May that he was resigning effective Aug. 1 to take a private-sector job in Atlanta.
ONE INVESTIGATION, TWO INTERPRETATIONS
Gonzales' problems on the Bluffton police force -- where he still works -- allegedly began in July 2010, when he was a senior sergeant. He said he fell out of favor with McAllister after asking to be transferred to avoid reporting to an officer he called a "favorite" of the chief's, the suit said.
A practical joke made it worse, it said.
In April 2011, Gonzales was participating in a training session in holding room when he heard someone trying to get in through the door. He jokingly leaned against the door to keep it from opening. When he realized it was McAllister, he immediately let him in, the suit said.
The incident ended when an angry McAllister allegedly pushed him, causing Gonzales to stumble, the suit contends. The suit does not say if Gonzales was injured.
Following that incident, Gonzales claims McAllisterattempted to embarrass him in front of subordinates on multiple occasions.
In September 2011, Gonzales took his complaints to the town manager and mentioned the holding cell incident.
The town manager began an investigation, but Gonzales said Barrett ignored a four-page statement detailing other retaliatory actions by the chief and focused only on the shoving incident.
A seven-day suspension for Gonzales, a demotion to the rank of officer from sergeant and a 5 percent pay reduction followed the findings of the investigation. His suit contends that his performance reviews have always been positive.
'GOSSIPING FARM ANIMALS'
At the time Gonzales filed his complaint, about twelve other officers had complained about McAllister, citing what they said was harassment, favoritism and other misconduct, the suit states. It alleges those complaints accused McAllister of having an affair, drinking and driving and other offenses.
In the news release, Barrett said those complaints are unrelated to Gonzales' suit. Barrett said they were only included to publicly ridicule the town manager and the police chief.
The suit also claims Barrett and the chief called all uniformed officers, including Gonzales, to a meeting in September 2011 in which Barrett read a poem and a story about gossiping farm animals.
"The Town Manager then likened the gossip that had occurred between the farm animals ... to the allegations that had been made about the Chief pushing an officer," the suit said.
After Gonzales was suspended, demoted and had his pay cut, he tried to file another complaint against the chief with Barrett, the suit claims.
Barrett's response, the suit said, was "kiss my a--."
Barrett declined to comment further Wednesday.
Gonzales is represented by J. Ashley Twombley of Beaufort, who declined to comment. Twombley's co-counsel is Nancy Bloodgood of Charleston, the same attorney who won $236,000 from the town for former Bluffton police officer Katherine Sours in an age-discrimination suits in 2011 and 2012.
Sours, who claimed she was unfairly demoted and laid off, received $150,000 to settle a federal age-discrimination lawsuit against the town, according to documents the town released May 30.
Sours, now 56, filed her complaint with the S.C. Human Affairs Commission and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2009, alleging that numerous comments made by McAllister showed her age was a factor in her termination.
She also was paid $86,000 to settle a separate wrongful-termination lawsuit filed in state court against the town.