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Fired Zephyrhills worker threatens to sue city

ZEPHYRHILLS — A law firm representing a former city employee whose allegations led to the resignation of the police chief is threatening to sue Zephyrhills for more than $200,000.

In a letter to the city manager, an attorney with the Wenzel & Fenton law firm in Tampa alleged that Kenneth Fong, who was fired in 2007 after working six months for the city's police department, was denied the right to be rehired because he blew the whistle on his former boss.

Fong, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, sparked an internal investigation in July when he alleged then-police Chief Russell Barnes and Sgt. Rob Perrault had falsified records.

The investigation revealed that Barnes manufactured a so-called flex-time policy that allowed Perrault to collect city police pay at the same time he was off duty and teaching classes at Pasco-Hernando Community College. The policy violated city law and possibly the Fair Labor Standards Act.

During the investigation, Perrault resigned to accept a position as a public school teacher. Barnes quit an hour before the City Council was to meet and decide whether to fire him.

Both men denied any wrongdoing.

The letter from attorney Steven Wenzel said Fong was not rehired when he applied for a position with the city's police department after the investigation because his allegations embarrassed the city and led to the termination of longtime employees. Wenzel could not be reached Tuesday.

The firm seeks a position for Fong, lost pay and compensatory damages.

"I had a feeling he was going to do that," said City Manager Steve Spina.

Fong was fired in April 2007 after allegations of erratic driving, Spina said.

He had also accrued a few written admonishments for lateness during his employment.

Fong's exit interview with the city stated that he was ineligible to be rehired.

About a year later, the erratic driving complaint was ruled unfounded and Fong was exonerated, Spina said.

Fong applied for a patrol position with the police department in September, two months after he had brought forth the allegations against Perrault and Barnes. Spina acknowledged his application in a letter.

"I told him the position was open. He was welcome to apply," Spina said.

The next month, however, Fong received a letter from the department stating he would not be considered for the position because his exit letter stated he was ineligible for rehire.

The letters are all exhibits in Wenzel's note to the city, along with a "previous employment questionnaire" the Port Richey Police Department sent to Zephyrhills in July when Fong applied for a law enforcement position. On the questionnaire, Katrina Bouthot, Zephyrhills' director of administrative services, indicated that Fong was eligible for re-employment.

The exit interview and questionnaire were filled out some time apart, Spina said.

"I think it's just a miscommunication."

The city has consulted labor attorney Brian Koji about the matter. Koji, of the Tampa firm Allen, Norton & Blue, could not be reached Tuesday.

Helen Anne Travis can be reached at htravis@sptimes.com or (813) 435-7312.

Fired Zephyrhills worker threatens to sue city 12/23/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 26, 2008 10:12am]
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