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Terminated Galt Sergeant Reinstated and Awarded More Than $70,000 in Back Pay

Posted on Friday, January 02, 2015 at 12:00AM

SEAN D. HOWELL
Senior Associate Attorney
Mastagni Holstedt, APC

Sergeant Michael Tassano of the Galt Police Department was reinstated and awarded back pay by the Galt City Council after an advisory arbitration award reversing Chief William Bowen’s decision to terminate the sergeant’s 11-year exemplary career. He returned to work on June 23, 2014, after being terminated for nearly 10 months. During a three-day advisory arbitration proceeding before arbitrator Claude Ames, Sergeant Tassano and his attorney were able to disprove absurd allegations of dishonesty, dispel allegations that he misappropriated City equipment, and destroy the Chief’s claims that Tassano had been dishonest four other times dating back to the beginning of his career.

Misappropriation Allegations Reversed
The San Ramon Police Department donated six analog light bars to the Galt Police Department. Sergeant Tassano and another police officer looked at the light bars and both determined they were “junk,” in that they were unusable for Department patrol vehicles, which had switched to LED lights some time back. Many of the light bars were missing lenses and wiring harnesses, making them financially prohibitive for use at the Department. The other officer testified that Sergeant Tassano was going to see if Lieutenant Vizzusi would authorize him to throw the light bars away.
Two other Police Department employees also asked Sergeant Tassano what the Department was going to do with the light bars, because they wanted to take them as decorations. Sergeant Tassano told them that he was planning to talk to Lieutenant Vizzusi to get permission to discard them. He spoke with Vizzusi and obtained permission to throw them away. The two other Police Department employees later followed up with Tassano to see if the lieutenant had given permission to discard the light bars. Tassano confirmed that he had received permission and that they were in a pile to be thrown away.
Chief Bowen and Lieutenant Vizzusi considered Sergeant Tassano’s actions — giving the light bars away or, in the alternative, throwing the light bars away — a violation of departmental policy, as the light bars should have been “surplused.” However, several officers came and testified they were unaware the light bars should have been surplused under these circumstances, as they were donated and “junk.” Furthermore, Sergeant Tassano had never surplused items in the past and was unfamiliar with the process. Therefore, the arbitrator, and ultimately the City Council, reversed Chief Bowen’s findings and concluded that Tassano did not misappropriate City property.

Meritless Dishonesty Allegations Levied
Lieutenant Vizzusi denied having a conversation with Sergeant Tassano giving him permission to throw the light bars away. Chief Bowen and Lieutenant Vizzusi decided this discrepancy in favor of Vizzusi and sustained dishonesty allegations against Tassano, despite the voluminous evidence that the conversation took place — i.e., Tassano’s conversations with three other Police Department employees both before and after the conversation with Vizzusi, wherein Tassano informed them he would or did talk to Vizzusi to obtain permission to throw the light bars away.
Another officer reported to Lieutenant Vizzusi and Chief Bowen that officers may have light bars at their homes, possibly in violation of Department policy. Lieutenant Vizzusi was ordered by Chief Bowen to investigate this matter. The lieutenant then looked for the light bars in one of the equipment bays and could not find them. In violation of the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights (Government Code Section 3300), Vizzusi questioned Tassano, asking if anyone had the Department’s light bars at their home. Tassano recalled Vizzusi asking about light bars obtained more recently from Roseville Police Department and answered “No.” He had long since put the San Ramon light bars out of his mind, as he believed that they had been thrown away months before. Chief Bowen used this discrepancy as a basis to sustain dishonesty allegations against Tassano. However, because arbitrator Claude Ames made findings that Sergeant Tassano testified credibly, he took him at his word.
Many of the memoranda written by Lieutenant Vizzusi were full of errors and inconsistencies, which were material mistakes at a minimum, or blatant misrepresentations at worst. For example, Sergeant Tassano’s attorney questioned Lieutenant Vizzusi about whether he had ever given permission to throw away any Department equipment, including light bars. He was asked specifically if he had ever told Sergeant Tassano it was OK to “toss” light bars and other equipment if they could not be used. Lieutenant Vizzusi vehemently denied ever giving such permission. However, Sergeant Tassano’s attorney confronted the lieutenant with an email that he had sent to Sergeant Tassano concerning equipment that the Department received from Roseville Police Department, including light bars. At the end of the email from Lieutenant Vizzusi, it stated, “What we can’t use we can toss.” After being confronted with such an obvious misrepresentation, Lieutenant Vizzusi’s credibility evaporated.

Four Allegations of Previously Uncharged Dishonesty Added
Allegations related to Sergeant Tassano’s reporting of his credit status during his background investigation, a documented conversation with another employee, comments he made concerning the Chief’s attendance at a funeral for a retired officer, and the status of his vehicle registration were all issues never before alleged as dishonesty. However, Chief Bowen recharacterized each of these events as dishonesty for the purpose of Sergeant Tassano’s termination.
In one case, Chief Bowen indicated that he ran Sergeant Tassano’s license plate and found the registration was not current. Sergeant Tassano then approached the Chief and stated that his registration was current. Chief Bowen alleged this was another lie. However, after Sergeant Tassano’s attorney obtained the records for each time the license plate was run and called the dispatchers who actually ran the plate, it was discovered that his vehicle registration was current at the time he had the conversation with Chief Bowen protesting his innocence.
At the hearing, Chief Bowen claimed that he did not have anyone run Sergeant Tassano’s plate prior to the conversation between the two. However, the dates on the Department’s records, and the testimony from the dispatcher who ran the plate, proved that Chief Bowen personally asked the dispatcher to run the plate prior to the conversation between Bowen and Tassano. This proved Chief Bowen knew Sergeant Tassano was not dishonest when he stated that his registration was current, yet the Chief included this as an allegation in the case and used it to show an alleged pattern of dishonesty to form the basis for his termination.

City Council Accepts the Decision of the Arbitrator
The Galt City Council went out of its way to afford Sergeant Tassano every opportunity to be heard prior to making its final decision on the advisory decision of arbitrator Ames. Both parties were given a set amount of time to make arguments at a special City Council meeting. After hearing arguments and rebuttals from both parties, the Galt City Council upheld the arbitrator’s award, reversing Sergeant Tassano’s termination and putting him back to work as a sergeant, with back pay amounting to more than $70,000.
Sergeant Tassano and his attorney, as well as the Galt Police Officers’ Association, feel the Galt City Council handled this matter properly and arrived at a well-reasoned and fair decision. The result in this case could not have been accomplished without the tremendous resources that the PORAC Legal Defense Fund provided Sergeant Tassano and his attorney.

About the Author 
Sean D. Howell is a senior associate attorney with Mastagni Holstedt, APC. He represented Sergeant Tassano in his administrative appeal. 
 

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