SANDY SPRINGS, Ga. — Some former Sandy Springs police officers are considering a whistleblower lawsuit against the city after they claim the officials punished them for raising concerns about an allegedly hostile work environment.
Ron Momon, the police department's former public information officer, told Channel 2's Mike Petchenik he and two colleagues raised concerns about on-going issues at the department.
“Talking down to people, belittling people,” he said. “Morale in that department is very bad. People are afraid to speak out. People are walking around on egg shells.”
Momon provided Petchenik a letter concerned officers compiled and provided to the city, outlining alleged “fear, intimidation, and harassment present within the department.”
Among the allegations enumerated in the letter:
- Chief Ken DeSimone instituted a volunteer physical fitness testing program but used intimidation to get participation by tying officer's off-duty jobs to their physical fitness tests.
- The department forced officers over the age of 40 to undergo mandatory physicals.
- The chief and commanding officers targeted overweight officers to go on diets and that Chief DeSimone openly referred to the group as the "Chub Club" or "Fat Camp."
- Command staff berated rank and file officers and civilian employees by saying they were "fat, called too old to do a certain job, cursed and yelled at in front of fellow employees and civilians, demeaned in open meetings."
- After a SWAT officer became sick during a physical fitness test and had to seek medical attention, that someone put feminine hygiene products in his gym bag to humiliate him.
Momon said 22 officers were willing to speak to Human Resources about instances they witnessed, but when they brought their concerns to city Human Resources Director, Carol Sicard, they were rebuffed.
“She expressed concern for her job. That was a red flag to us knowing she reported to the city manager and she expressed concern for her job,” he said. “That told us we didn’t really feel comfortable the allegations would be thoroughly examined.”
Momon said he believes Sicard was concerned because Chief DeSimone is a long-time friend of her boss, City Manager John McDonough.
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In an e-mailed statement from the city, Sicard denied she was worried about losing her job.
“I was never told I would lose my job for launching an investigation,” her statement read. “I meet on a regular basis with the City Manager related to personnel matters.”
When the concerned officers felt they’d get no traction with the city manager, they turned to Mayor Rusty Paul.
“We were hoping that by turning this letter in to the mayor that the mayor would offer a meeting with us, offer to meet with us,” Momon said. “Unfortunately that didn’t happen.”
Mayor Paul told Petchenik city policy prevented him from taking an active part in the situation.
“What I did was what our protocols say,” he told Petchenik. “I took it to the city manager as a personnel matter and they have to go through a process, a very detailed process.”
In the weeks after Paul received the letter, documents obtained by Channel 2 Action News and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, show all three officers were put on paid administrative leave and that an internal affairs investigation was opened into each them on allegations they violated the city’s grievance policy.
“I think it brings discredit to the city of Sandy Springs that you have three individuals from the Police Department trying to raise concerns about things going within the department, but the department, instead of choosing to look into these matters, the department chose to retaliate against us,” Momon said.
McDonough ultimately demoted the officers by one rank and placed them on probation for 12 months, despite a recommendation to terminate them, for participating "in any action that disrupts or disturbs the operation of the City" and for attempting to use political influence to secure disciplinary action. Additionally, the officers failed to follow instructions and violated the employee handbook, McDonough said in a disciplinary letter.
In a statement sent via a city spokeswoman, McDonough denied the city retaliated against anyone:
"This was determined not to be a case of whistleblowing. Based on the Internal Investigation conducted by the Office of Professional Standards of the Sandy Springs Police Department, it was found that the officers involved did not possess first-hand knowledge of most of the allegations set forth in the letter, which were determined to be based on rumor, gossip, half-truths, erroneous information and speculation. Furthermore, the City does not retaliate against whistleblowers.
"These officers did not attempt to utilize well-established dispute resolution procedures that all officers are made aware of, and in fact, sign off as receiving. In fact, the process goes through every level in the officer's chain of command up to and including the City Manager. Beyond the City Manager, there is an additional review step consisting of the appointment of an independent hearing officer who reviews the facts of the case and makes a recommendation to the City Manager. In this case, the process is ongoing."
City officials maintain the initial letter was sent to them anonymously, so they were not aware of who had sent it, and only learned the source after launching the internal investigation.
In his statement, Chief DeSimone denied making any derogatory comments about the weight of officers, and he denied that morale is low:
“It is impossible to make everyone happy all the time, but my goal is to foster a department that aspires to high standards. At the same time, I also encourage and practice an open door policy. In policing, it is imperative that officers are able to rely on one another and trust one another. In looking at the department from a high level, I believe we have one of the finest departments in the Southeast.
Mayor Paul echoed that sentiment to Petchenik and said he has full faith in DeSimone as the city’s police chief.
“I see them very motivated, very excited to come to work and they do a phenomenal job,” he said of the department’s officers.
Momon and Sgt. Lawrence Joe retired from the department rather than taking the demotion. A third officer, Glenn Kalish, still works for the department and is appealing the demotion.
Cox Media Group