The St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office has settled a federal lawsuit filed by a former officer who said he faced reprisals and ultimately termination because he resisted pressure to buy a $250 ticket to Sheriff Jack Strain’s campaign fundraiser in 2011.
Clinton Mathews, a 17-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office, filed suit in federal court in December, claiming he was demoted to the patrol division from narcotics — where he had reached the rank of lieutenant and had been highly decorated — after he complained about a supervisor pressuring him to buy a ticket to the sheriff’s gala.
According to the lawsuit, the supervisor, Capt. Barney Tyrney, also pressured Mathews to get deputies serving under him to buy tickets to the event.
The suit named Strain and Tyrney as defendants, along with Capt. Richard Magee and Major Joseph Jarrell, who were Mathews’ supervisors after he was moved to patrol.
The suit was settled last week. Charles Hughes Jr., attorney for the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, declined to answer questions about the amount of the settlement. He said only that the suit “was satisfactorily resolved to the benefit of all parties.”
Mathews’ lawsuit sought compensatory damages, back pay, benefits, reinstatement and attorney fees and court costs.
Mathews’ lawyer did not return calls seeking comment.
The New Orleans Advocate filed a public-records request with the Sheriff’s Office on Thursday seeking terms of the settlement.
The lawsuit described Mathews’ actions in March 2011 as a “principled stand” that he took when Tyrney asked him to influence employees under him to buy tickets to the sheriff’s gala and to buy one himself.
“Mr. Mathews knew that the request violated the law and his rights,” the lawsuit said. “Mr. Mathews reported the request to several superiors within the STPSO, but no corrective action was taken. Rather, Mr. Mathews was subsequently demoted, transferred and retaliated against for his position regarding the Campaign Gala.’’
The suit described “strong-arm tactics,” including Tyrney suggesting that narcotics officers made a lot of overtime, and asking if Mathews wanted Tyrney to take that benefit away.
Employees came to Mathews and said they feared their prospects for advancement hinged on purchasing tickets, the suit said, and some said they would have difficulty affording the $250.
Ultimately, Mathews bought a ticket in an effort to protect his job and pay level, the suit said. Tyrney deposited the check in his personal account and said his wife would use the ticket since Mathews was going to be out of town and unable to attend, the suit said.
Mathews received a check from Strain’s campaign fund in January 2012 reimbursing him for the $250.
“During Mr. Mathews’ tenure at the STPSO, he had been asked to contribute to campaigns and pressured to vote at elections with suggestions that the poll attendance was monitored by the department,” the suit said. “However, up until this point in his career, he had never been coerced with the threat of reprisal such as was perpetrated by Defendant Tyrney.”
Mathews learned that he was being transferred to the Patrol Division a month after the gala, a move that the suit describes as a demotion with a reduction in pay because he would earn less overtime. Tyrney told him he was being transferred because he was “not a team player,” the suit said.
Later that year, Mathews took five weeks of medical leave for gall bladder surgery. In December 2011, he received his first-ever negative performance appraisal, faulting him in the categories of teamwork and leadership. When he questioned the assessments, he was told that his absence during his recovery from surgery had a negative effect on the shift, the suit said.
Mathews took leave again in April 2012, when he injured his knee while on duty and had to have surgery, according to the lawsuit. When he returned, he was put on light duty but was ultimately told that he would lose his job if he did not return to regular duty. His last day at work was Oct. 30, 2012.