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Former police officers sue town of Lyndeborough

LYNDEBOROUGH — Two former Lyndeborough police officers are suing the town, charging they lost their jobs after starting an investigation into the actions of Select Board member Donnie Sawin.

In a complaint filed last week in Hillsborough County Superior Court, former Lyndeborough Officer in Charge Thomas Burke and former Lyndeborough Sgt. Paul Roy allege the town’s Select Board retaliated after Sawin was asked to resign by Burke and Roy, who had accused Sawin of misconduct.

The suit, filed by attorney Charles Douglas of Concord, contends that in Burke’s case, the town “created adverse working conditions which were ongoing, severe and pervasive, and interfered with [Burke’s] ability to do his job effectively and interfered with his personal life and emotional well-being.” Burke’s employment conditions, according to the suit, were “so intolerable that no reasonable person would be expected to tolerate them,” which is why Burke felt compelled to resign.

Burke handed in his resignation on June 9, at that time also citing a hostile work environment.

Roy, who was Burke’s second-in-command on the police force, was fired by Select Board member Kevin Boette the week after Burke resigned. The lawsuit alleges Roy was fired “for engaging in actions which public policy would encourage — to wit: 1) his participation in looking into alleged wrongdoing by Selectman Sawin performing acts as if he were an active police officer and 2.) invoking his employee rights to a public meeting and/or attendance of his supervisor with the [Board of Selectmen] to discuss his employment.”

According to the suit, Roy was asked to meet with the Select Board in nonpublic session, although Roy requested that any meeting be held publicly and with Burke present. The suit contends that Roy had the right to not meet with the board alone in a nonpublic session.

Burke and Roy asked for a jury trial and are seeking damages for lost wages, lost benefits, emotional distress and humiliation.

The Select Board was scheduled to meet in nonpublic session on Monday night in order to discuss the lawsuit with an attorney from the Local Government Center, which provides insurance coverage to the town, according to Town Administrator Kate Thorndike.

Burke and Roy’slawsuit details incidents in which Sawin allegedly improperly involved himself in Lyndeborough Police Department activities. According to the suit, Sawin interfered in a juvenile investigation by contacting Lyndeborough Police Officer Rance Deware at home regarding a case Deware was investigating.

“Sawin revealed that he was dating the juvenile suspect’s mother,” the suit states. “In this conversation, Sawin offered to ‘aid’ Officer Deware with the case.”

The suit states that Deware reported to Burke that he felt intimidated by the call and that Sawin was trying to get him to back off the investigation.

Deware is currently serving as Lyndeborough’s officer in charge, a job he was appointed to after Burke resigned.

The suit also states that Sawin, who is a part-time Wilton police officer and had taken a leave of absence as a Lyndeborough officer, went to a homicide scene in July 2011 in a personal vehicle with flashing blue lights, in uniform with a sidearm and badge, even though he had not been called to respond. And the suit said Sawin had authorized Lyndeborough officer Gary Potter, who the suit identified as Sawin’s “housemate,” to take Potter’s girlfriend on a police ride-along, which was not authorized by Burke.

According to the suit, Burton Reynolds, who was Lyndeborough’s town administrator at the time, and Town Counsel William Drescher requested that Burke and Roy attempt to resolve the issues directly with Sawin, rather than involving an outside agency to conduct an investigation. The two officers met with Sawin on March 1. According to the suit, “Sawin admitted his conduct was wrong.”

The suit states that during the meeting, it was agreed that a referral to an outside law enforcement agency would not be made as long as Sawin agreed to resign and not seek re-election to the Select Board. According to the lawsuit, Sawin dictated a written agreement, which Burke and Roy signed. “Sawin asked for the agreement so the town attorney could review it and then Sawin left the meeting with the original signed agreement,” the suit reads.

Sawin never signed the agreement and the Select Board retained the Stein Law Firm of Concord, which filed a complaint on the board’s behalf with the N.H. Attorney General’s Office. The Attorney General’s Office eventually concluded that no criminal activity had occurred on the part of anyone involved and closed its investigation. The Attorney General’s Office recently released more than 380 pages of documents related to the investigation in response to a Right-to-Know request from resident Lee Mayhew, who has been critical of the Select Board’s handling of the entire situation.

Burke and Roy’ssuit contends that after the Attorney General’s investigation was complete, the Select Board “continued its pattern of retaliation and harassment against Capt. Burke and Sgt. Roy for looking into allegations of wrongdoing by Selectman Sawin.” The suit says that one of the issues leading to Burke’s decision to resign was a demand that he get Roy’s resignation, which he considered an illegal termination.

On Thursday, Burke declined to comment directly on the lawsuit when contacted by phone. He did, however, object to comments made by Boette at a recent resident’s meeting, where Boette said he had felt intimidated during his discussions with Burke and Roy and said, “We should not have our elected officials threatened by our police. That’s Nazi Germany.”

“I’m offended by his false allegations, “ Burke said of Boette. “He wasn’t intimidated. When you’re intimidated by someone, you don’t badger and bark at them. He in essence is saying the selectmen are above the law.”

Regarding the request to have Sawin resign, Burke said, “ Someone had to do a criminal investigation. I took the least authoritative action I could. There’s no validity to the idea that we threatened to arrest [Sawin].”

Burke repeated an assertion he made in an earlier interview, when he said a request of a resignation is a common practice.

“This happens quite frequently with town officials. I was asked not to bring negative publicity. It’s not uncommon,” he said.

Sawin said, in a phone conversation Friday, that the civil suit would mean more details will come out if the case goes to trial. He said he had been advised not to comment on the suit, but he did say, on the record, “We’re not the bad guys we look like.”

The suit is the latest development in a long-running debate among townspeople about the pros and cons of having an officer-in-charge system, under which the Select Board has considerable oversight of police activities. A petition warrant article calling for return to a police-chief system will be on the warrant in March 2013. Boette and Select Board Chair Arnie Byam said, at a Select Board meeting in August, that they would follow through on that change if voters approve the article.

Dave Anderson can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 233 or danderson@ledgertranscript.com. He’s on Twitter at @DaveAndersonMLT.

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