A former employee of the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office won more than $1.5 million Friday in a whistleblower lawsuit against the department, alleging that he was fired for reporting illegal political campaigning activity by employees in 2010.
“It’s an incredible win,” said Needham attorney Timothy M. Burke, who represented former Director of Human Resources Jude Cristo in his civil complaint, filed in 2011, against the Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis, former special sheriff Shawn Jenkins, and Captain Jason Dickhaut.
“It’s a total vindication for Mr. Cristo and his family,” said Burke, who tried the case over about a day and a half with his son, Jordan E. Burke, in Worcester Superior Court. The jury returned their judgment in about an hour Friday, he said. The award was for $885,000, which will rise to about $1.58 million with interest, according to court documents.
A spokesman for the sheriff’s office said the department plans to appeal. The case was tried once before, and Cristo lost narrowly, but it was retried after a legal error by the judge, according to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
“Of course we’re disappointed; we won the first trial,” Sheriff’s Office Superintendent David Tuttle said in a phone interview on Saturday. “For whatever reason, this jury saw it differently. We’re confident that Sheriff Evangelidis did not discriminate against Jude or treat him any differently.”
Cristo, who currently serves as the chair of the Millbury Board of Assessors, worked for the sheriff’s office for 12 years. He became head of human resources in 2006, and was later given additional responsibilities, including payroll director, ADA compliance coordinator, and sexual and protected class harassment grievance officer.
In 2009, then-Sheriff Guy W. Glodis decided not to seek reelection, and Jenkins assumed the position of special sheriff during the election period. Among the candidates running to replace him was Assistant Deputy Superintendent Scot Bove.
In early 2010, Cristo realized that Bove was marking himself present for full days worked at times when he was not in, and instead was “presumably out campaigning,” according to his complaint. He noticed that other employees, including Dickhaut, were helping Bove during work hours. He alleges that he saw Dickhaut distributing nomination papers on Sheriff’s Office grounds, and giving Bove bumper stickers to the payroll assistant.
Public employees are prohibited from engaging in political activities during work time or at their workplace.
Jenkins and a deputy superintendent acknowledged that they were aware of Bove’s activities, according to the complaint, and Cristo says he told them both about Dickhaut’s activities.
But, Cristo alleges, nothing was done. Instead, in February 2010, he says that Dickhaut confronted him for reporting his behavior, and Jenkins just laughed about it.
Bove lost in the primary; Evangelidis won the race in November 2010. Evangelidis was inaugurated on Jan. 5, 2011, according to the complaint.
Two days later, Cristo was told his position was being “abolished,” according to the complaint. Later, he said, his pension was improperly reduced and he was denied a payout for his unused sick time.
“He’s the only person that had sufficient character to complain about what was going on,” said Burke. “They just didn’t trust him to keep quiet.”
In February 2011, the complaint states, Jenkins sent Cristo a letter saying that his position was being combined with another that required a “financial background” that he did not have.
Tuttle said that Cristo was not fired for blowing the whistle on unethical behavior, and that Evangelidis and his administration had not even known of Cristo’s earlier complaints.
When Evangelidis was coming into office, he said, the transition team sat down with Jenkins, who explained that the department’s budget had been cut and they were millions short for the year. About 75 people were laid off at that time, Tuttle said, and Cristo was not qualified for the new combined position.