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Former Zephyrhills police officer sues city, alleging retaliation for complaint

ZEPHYRHILLS — A former Zephyrhills police officer who helped expose internal payroll fraud has sued the city, claiming officials are retaliating against him by not giving back his job.

Kenneth Fong began his career in law enforcement at a small police department in Eagle Lake before moving on to work with the Bradenton police and the Levy County Sheriff's Office.

In 2006, he began work as an officer with Zephyrhills police. Six months later, a complaint he drove his patrol car erratically led to his firing.

About a year later, in July 2008, Fong learned of an ongoing flextime fraud led by former Chief Russell Barnes. Using falsified records, Sgt. Rob Perrault earned police pay while teaching at Pasco-Hernando Community College — an illegal practice that Fong said Barnes and City Manager Steve Spina allowed to continue.

Fong complained of the fraud that month. Investigators confirmed his claims, leading both Barnes and Perrault to resign. Around the same time, Fong was exonerated when city officials determined the complaint that led to his firing was unfounded.

A month after Barnes' resignation, Fong attempted to reapply as a police officer, the lawsuit states. He felt he was qualified, the department had an available job and the city had sent the Port Richey Police Department a letter recommending him for a job.

To Fong's surprise, the department responded that he was "not eligible for rehire." Spina, the lawsuit states, said it was because of Fong's public complaint.

Fong's attorneys at Florin Roebig say the city's rejection constitutes a violation of his freedom of speech. Fong's allegations were a matter of public concern, the lawsuit states, and to deprive Fong of a rehiring is a clear show of retaliation.

Spina, the city's "final policymaker," is named as a co-defendant in the lawsuit. Spina said Wednesday he had not yet seen the suit and could not comment.

Fong threatened to sue for more than $200,000 in 2008, but his lawsuit, filed Wednesday, does not name a cost. Fong seeks back pay with interest and compensatory damages.

Fong, now 41, has yet to find a new job in law enforcement.

Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6244.

Former Zephyrhills police officer sues city, alleging retaliation for complaint 06/09/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 9, 2010 8:46pm]
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