Plum Solicitor Bruce Dice testified Thursday that investigating Terry Focareta and drawing up a list of 21 accusations for firing him as Plum police chief was personally painful but part of the job.
“I don’t like what happened here. I am sorry,” Dice said during the fourth day of trial in Focareta’s federal lawsuit against Plum’s mayor, seven councilmen and Dice. “I am a lawyer doing my job. That’s the way it works, whether he is a friend or not a friend.”
But Pat Sorek, Focareta’s attorney, said Dice actually “steered the investigation exactly where the (other) defendants wanted it to go and piled on charges.”
The lawsuit charges that Plum Council fired Focareta on Jan. 24, 2002, as retaliation for investigations of Mayor John Schmeck, several councilmen and their relatives. Dice was added as a defendant earlier this year.
Plum officials say Focareta was fired for mishandling the hiring of a police officer in fall 2001.
Focareta is seeking reinstatement to the chief’s job, payment of back wages and benefits and unspecified punitive damages.
Dice, who said he and Focareta were friends for almost 30 years, testified that he began his investigation into the hiring at Schmeck’s request after council hired Paul Saxon as a patrol officer. Dice said Schmeck told him of a letter from applicant Louis Parrotta Jr. Parrotta’s letter said he did not fail a polygraph exam, as had been reported, and complained of being unfairly removed from the eligibility list.
Dice said he initially thought Parrotta simply was a “disgruntled applicant.”
Dice testified that in November 2001 he learned from the polygraph examiner that Parrotta had passed the test. Dice said he then obtained a Sept. 4, 2001, memo on which Parrotta is listed as “disqualified” and “failed polygraph.”
“I didn’t know who disqualified him,” Dice said.
Dice said that because Plum Civil Service Commission rules say only commission members can disqualify a candidate, he asked each of the three members about Parrotta’s disqualification. Dice said he sent copies of the letters to Focareta, interim borough manager Maria Gingery and Plum Council members.
Dice said he verified by early January 2002 that the three commission members had not disqualified Parrotta, providing “the last piece of the puzzle” that Focareta was responsible.
Dice said he subsequently drafted a list of charges of conduct unbecoming an officer, neglect of duty and immorality. Dice said he presented the charges to council, and the seven members decided to fire Focareta.
Focareta, 55, who now is chief of corporate security for a real estate management company, testified earlier this week that he did not disqualify Parrotta. Instead, Focareta said his Sept. 4, 2001, memo to Plum Council stated his opinion about Parrotta based on the results of the polygraph examination.
Focareta testified that although Parrotta’s responses were truthful, the Sept. 4 memo lists Parrotta as having failed because the answers “caused alarm to me.” Focareta said Parrotta admitted to illegal use of steroids. Parrotta has not testified and he declined to comment.
Sorek asked Dice if he considered getting Focareta’s explanation of the hiring before drawing up the charges.
“You were Mr. Focareta’s friend,” Sorek said. “You never approached him?”
“He became a suspect to me in possibly a serious wrongdoing,” Dice said, adding that Focareta had an opportunity to give his side during a hearing before council after the charges were presented.
Sorek also asked Dice why he drafted 21 lengthy charges against the chief.
“What is the difference between ‘misrepresentation’ and ‘creating a false impression’?” Sorek asked, referring to two paragraphs charging that Focareta had misled council about Parrotta’s polygraph results. “You didn’t need all these statements to charge Chief Focareta, did you?
“That is how I styled it as a lawyer,” Dice answered.
Sorek also asked Dice why Focareta’s discharge papers contained a provision that he could be charged with defiant trespass if he entered police headquarters after he was fired.
“You threatened his arrest,” Sorek said to Dice. “(With) everything you knew about him for 30 years, he was a danger?”
“He wasn’t a danger,” Dice responded. “Was it right under these circumstancesâ¢ Yes. We wanted to make sure it was clear he was not to return.”
After Sorek finished presenting Focareta’s side of the case, attorneys for the borough and Dice asked that the suit be dismissed. U.S. District Judge Donetta W. Ambrose rejected the requests. The trial resumes Monday with the borough presenting its case.