Stockbridge ex-fire chief sues to be reinstated

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STOCKBRIDGE — Arguing that the town and two Select Board members violated his First Amendment rights through political discrimination and retaliation, dismissed Fire Chief Ernest "Chuckie" Cardillo is asking a federal court to reinstate him immediately, ahead of a jury trial.

The civil complaint by Cardillo, who remains the third member of the Select Board, was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Springfield by his Pittsfield attorney, Robert Fuster Sr.

The lawsuit against the town, also naming the Select Board and two members, Donald Chabon and Terry Flynn, alleges that Cardillo's contract was terminated and benefits denied "through the use of unequal standards, collusion and adverse political motivation."

In a public meeting on Feb. 5, the two selectmen fired Cardillo for mismanaging the purchase of excess and overpriced disposable materials for the fire department through a "scam" perpetrated by two Long Island, N.Y., vendors, the lawsuit states.

The complaint alleges Cardillo was subjected to inferior work conditions and a demand from his two Select Board colleagues that he resign both as fire chief and selectman "in order to stay employed by the town in an inferior position."

The result, Fuster's court filing contends, is that Cardillo has suffered damages that include "loss of income, employment benefits, other financial losses, loss of professional opportunities, damage to his reputation and loss of community standing."

He is seeking a court judgment against the town, Chabon and Flynn, "plus interest and costs of this action, and reasonable attorney fees."

Furthermore, the complaint claims, the two Select Board members' actions leading to Cardillo's firing included "numerous errors" that violated state law.

The lawsuit calls for restoration of his position, annulment of the Select Board's decision and the award of back pay after a jury trial.

In seeking a declaratory judgment from the federal court, Fuster called for a ruling that Cardillo's termination "was not supported by adequate evidence and the Board violated the terms of his contract."

A declaratory judgment is a court ruling that determines the parties' rights without necessarily providing a remedy.

The breach of contract, Fuster argues, caused damages to Cardillo "in an amount to be proven at trial" and he demanded an immediate and permanent court injunction reversing his termination and a judgment allowing him to be reinstated as fire chief.

It was not clear when any court hearings may be scheduled on the matter.

The town's attorney, J. Raymond Miyares, pushed back against the allegations in the lawsuit.

"The Stockbridge Select Board reached a decision to terminate the Fire Chief after holding a public hearing and considering the available evidence," he told The Eagle via email. "The Select Board's decision sets forth its rationale in detail, and is a public record, available for all to see. The Board made its findings based on the evidence presented, and stands behind its decision."

Miyares, in his report last November, wrote that the "scam" resulted in at least $45,000 of overcharges and questionable transactions billed to the Fire Department over the previous six years in a pattern of high-pressure sales tactics involving products such as fire foam, heavy duty truck wash, hose and gear cleaner, wipes for face masks and ice melt. He contended that Cardillo did not follow procedures designed to prevent such losses.

"The town has been victimized," Miyares stated at that time. "We think our best remedy is to try to return the product and get refunds for things bought but not needed, and to shore up our procurement process so this sort of thing doesn't happen again." He also said that of the roughly $45,000 in excessive charges tracked through invoices, on his advice, $20,000 had not been paid by the town.

Cardillo was named the town's first full-time, paid fire chief in July 2012, including service as the town's EMT and fire inspector.

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The lawsuit claims that he acted, in effect, as procurement officer for the department, although he was not assigned that duty by then-Town Administrator Jorja-Ann Marsden, nor was he trained in purchasing procedures.

According to the court complaint, Cardillo received positive annual performance reviews and "completed many courses and programs" in connection with his position.

He was first elected to the Select Board in May 2015, but town counsel issued an opinion, backed by the State Ethics Commission, that he would not be eligible for reappointment as fire chief as long as he served on the Select Board, unless annual town meeting voters first approved that reappointment.

Cardillo then resigned his Select Board post and was reappointed as fire chief.

In mid-September 2015, he won a special election to fill the Select Board seat he had vacated.

Cardillo was re-elected to a second Select Board term last May, having run unopposed, after annual town meeting voters approved authorization of his future reappointments as fire chief.

The lawsuit states that Selectman Flynn had previously written a "strongly worded" letter to the editor to The Eagle opposing his dual role in the town.

Flynn's letter, published Sept. 12, 2015, stated that he did not think "it is healthy for our full-time fire chief to be a Selectman. It is legal, but it is not wise. It will be best for all if Chuckie serves the town as fire chief and not Selectman."

The lawsuit chronicles Cardillo's dealings with the two Long Island, N.Y., vendors, Pioneer Products and Noble Industrial Supply, acknowledging that the companies doubled the products shipped and, in 21 transactions over a six-year period, threatened price increases if he cut back on orders.

After several invoices were received for more than $10,000 last summer, Town Administrator Danielle Fillio, appointed in June 2017, refused to pay them after consulting with Cardillo, the complaint states.

The investigation and report by Miyares, commissioned by Selectmen Chabon and Flynn and completed last November, concluded that "the town had been defrauded by a scam" by the two vendors which had also victimized "multiple small towns and non-profit organizations throughout New England," the complaint argues.

The lawsuit alleges a campaign by Flynn and Chabon to replace Cardillo as fire chief while assuring him that he would have "job security within the town" if he resigned first as selectman and then as fire chief. Initially, the complaint states, Cardillo was promised continued employment as an EMT for the Fire Department, but after a closed-door Select Board session in mid-December last year, the offer was revised to town employment "in an inferior position, not within the Fire Department."

The upshot, attorney Fuster's filing states, was that without any "progressive discipline," as required by the fire chief's contract, Cardillo felt he was under a "politically motivated attack" and that he had been "discouraged" from hiring an attorney.

Finally, the lawsuit states, in a public session requested by Cardillo, Flynn and Chabon determined that Cardillo had not properly managed Fire Department purchases from Pioneer and Noble, failed to follow procurement law minimum requirements over seven years, remained silent about pressure from the vendors to accept deliveries of unneeded supplies at inflated prices, and thus caused the town's losses.

The two selectmen were "troubled" by incorrect spreadsheet entries prepared by Cardillo, the lawsuit adds, but "the evidence is insufficient to conclude that falsification was intentional."

After Cardillo was placed on paid administrative leave last December and assigned to firehouse, inspection and EMT duties, Flynn and Chabon did not conclude that he tried to undermine Acting Chief Neil Haywood. But, the complaint contends, the two selectmen determined that Cardillo's working relationship with Haywood "has not been at the level of commitment required by a member of the Fire Department."

The lawsuit concludes that the two selectmen terminated Cardillo "for cause despite a lack of adequate evidence and that the progressive discipline clause of his contract would not be honored."

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @ BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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