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Contessotto Sues City, Alleges His Firing Was Unfair

August 09, 1987|RICHARD HOLGUIN | Times Staff Writer

Huntington Park's former police chief sued the city for $2.5 million last week, alleging the City Council unfairly fired him and "destroyed" his career.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, alleges the council violated Geano Contessotto's civil rights when it did not provide him with a "meaningful hearing" to contest the July 24 firing.

Huntington Park City Atty. Steven N. Skolnik said Thursday that he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment on the specific allegations. But, Skolnik said, "If we didn't feel that we were operating within the law, we wouldn't have done what we've done. And we still feel that way. (The lawsuit) isn't any big surprise to anyone."

The City Council on June 22 had voted unanimously, after a closed session, to fire Contessotto from his $59,000-a-year position, effective July 24.

The council took the action without public comment, but the next day Mayor Thomas E. Jackson said problems in the Police Department had reached "such gigantic proportions . . . the council felt that only replacement of the department head could return the city to its prior stability."

Position Reaffirmed

The City Council reaffirmed its position after a July 16 administrative hearing in which Contessotto was given a chance to defend himself. During the hearing, Contessotto complained he was never told why he was fired and made no attempt to defend himself.

"How can I intelligently respond without knowing the reasons why," he pleaded at the hearing.

Skolnik replied that the council had no legal obligation to give Contessotto a reason for his dismissal and that only an opportunity to respond was required.

The lawsuit also alleges that the council "subverted" Contessotto's office by encouraging Police Department members to disobey his orders. The lawsuit contends that because of the firing, Contessotto has been unable to find work as a police administrator.

The "City Council and its members publicly defamed, ridiculed and stigmatized (Contessotto) as incompetent, inadequate, ineffectual, inept, imprudent and unreasonable," the lawsuit says.

City, Council Named in Suit

Contessotto is seeking $1 million in general damages and $1.5 million to compensate for lost earning power. The lawsuit names as defendants the city, the council and Councilmen Jackson, Jack W. Parks, Jim Roberts, William P. Cunningham.

Councilman Herbert A. Hennes was the only councilman not named individually as a defendant.

"We're intending to file another lawsuit against him," said Hugh R. Manes, Contessotto's attorney.

Contessotto, 40, grew up in Huntington Park and joined the Police Department as an officer at 22. He became police chief in June, 1983.

His problems began to mount in December, when Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner charged two former officers with using a stun gun to torture a juvenile they had arrested and were questioning. Former Officers William J. Lustig and Robert Rodriguez, who were fired from the department after being charged, face trial Monday in Superior Court on charges of felony assault.

Hennes Resigned in February

The Police Department is also the subject of several lawsuits alleging brutality.

In February, Hennes resigned as mayor, a ceremonial post, saying he had tired of publicly defending Contessotto and the Police Department and that he could no longer be a spokesman for "inadequate performance."

Conflict within the department appeared to reach a peak April 1, when Contessotto fired his two captains, accusing them of insubordination.

Capts. Charles Plum and Martin Simonoff appealed the decision to the city Civil Service Commission, which held a hearing. During the second day of testimony, a settlement was reached and they were reinstated June 8.

Plum's attorney, William R. Remery, said he had planned to call about 25 witnesses, 18 of whom were officers, to testify for the captains.

In June, the final dispute involving Contessotto became public when Hennes alleged Contessotto had solicited four officers for information to discredit him. Hennes called for a city investigation. The council fired Contessotto the night it was to decide whether to initiate the investigation.

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