Bliss lawsuit a family matter in Wareham

Frank Mulligan | GateHouse News Media

Police Lt. Donald Bliss’s lawsuit is a family matter.

In the complaint filed with the U.S. District Court on Friday, his attorney, Andrew J. Gambaccini, states, “Donald Bliss’s love for the Wareham Police Department and his role within it was a family affair, as his immediate family had taken time to paint the station, his young son had waxed police cruisers and one of his daughters had cleaned offices in the station.”

Not only is Bliss listed as a plaintiff, but his wife and three children are also named as aggrieved parties in the lawsuit lodged against former interim Town Administrator John J. Sanguinet, former Selectmen Bruce Sauvageau, Jane Donahue, Brenda Eckstrom, John Cronan, James Potter, Wareham resident Lisa Bindas and the town of Wareham.

After he was fired in February 2009 from the police department, Bliss “suffered the indignity of returning to his home with trash bags filled with his personal items that had been housed at the station. His family members … still recall that day as the commencement of a traumatic ordeal that extended for more than two years,” according to the complaint.

The complaint states the two-year appeal period between Bliss’s firing and his eventual reinstatement proved to be financially ruinous to the Bliss family.

“The family became inundated with mounting bills, calls from creditors, litigation over unpaid debts, overdue taxes and liens,” states the complaint.

“The family was forced to sell previously cherished and liked items of value on Ebay in order to make mortgage and other payments,” according to the complaint.

It states that utilities were shut off, and, “in a particularly embarrassing example,” the electricity in the Bliss home was shut off while friends were over for pictures on the occasion of their oldest daughter’s prom. Lack of money also affected her choice for college, according to the complaint.

The effects extended to the two youngest children, as well, interfering with their chances to enter camp and study music.

“The family had little to no money to celebrate holidays, birthdays, anniversaries or other celebrations, and were unable to vacation or spend time away as a family as they had previously.”

There was also “emotional damage, and physical manifestations of that harm, to the Bliss family,” according to the complaint.

“Donald Bliss, previously the consummate family man, soon sank into a period of deep depression and despair over his termination and his circumstances.”

According to the complaint, “That depression, for which treatment was sought and received, extended over the course of months and became accompanied by a turn to alcohol to dull the pain of the family’s situation. Whereas Donald Bliss’s children previously had never seen him drunk, that observation soon became a common occurrence for the family, along with attendant out of character anger and frustration.”

It also states, “Members of the public, seemingly incapable of believing that Donald Bliss had been terminated for the reasons articulated by the town, soon reported back as to talk as what had really been behind his dismissal. Those rumors extended from allegations that Donald Bliss had been caught drunk driving, that he was a mob bookie, that he was responsible for sexually assaulting his children or physically abusing his wife, or that he had let an arrestee go in exchange for work being performed on his house. All of these rumors damaged Donald Bliss’s previously impeccable reputation in his community.”

The Civil Service Commission issued a unanimous decision last May to return Donald Bliss to his position as a Wareham Police lieutenant with an award of more than $200,000 in back pay and benefits lost from the time he was fired in February 2009.

According to the commission ruling, the town did not have “just cause” to fire Bliss, and termed some of the town’s assertions bordering “on incredulous.”

In its summary of conclusion, the commission stated, “The draconian sanction imposed here upon a 24-year veteran WPD police officer with an otherwise unblemished and, indeed, markedly distinguished career of service to Wareham, who has acknowledged his one poor lapse of judgment and fully remediated his behavior, is an unmistakable example of the effect of improper personal motives and undue political influence which have no place in a merit-based civil service system.”

According to testimony heard by the commission, the town’s reasons for firing Bliss in February 2009 involved his use of a town cell phone for personal business, failing to fully reimburse the town for its use, using his position as a police officer to promote private business, using his position to sell alarms to the town at unfair advantage, and being misleading and obstructive during the investigation.

Former Police Chief Thomas Joyce issued a press release following Bliss’ firing in 2009, “The department is fully confident that a pending review of these complaints by the Civil Service Commission, on the actual facts rather than political retribution, will result in the lieutenant being vindicated and reinstated to his position.”

The commission stated Joyce’s testimony, as well as that made by former Town Administrator John McAuliffe, was “persuasive” in shaping its dismissal of the town’s charges. The two men testified “in support of their shared conclusion that (former) Interim Town Administrator (John J.) Sanguinet’s discharge of Lt. Bliss was wrong-headed, and was not based on sound independent judgment, but was one (of several examples) of continued intermeddling in personnel matters and daily operations orchestrated by the Board of Selectmen in excess of their authority, motivated by personal and political factors,” according to the ruling.

Joyce called the board members at the time the “most aggressive bunch” he had seen in all his years as a municipal executive. His deteriorating relationship with the board led to his retirement, he said.

The commission’s ruling also noted Joyce was “personally close to tears as he described how strongly he believed Lt. Bliss was mistreated by the Board of Selectmen.”

In this latest complaint, it’s alleged that the rancor Bliss faced stemmed from his promotion to lieutenant over Sgt. Eileen Grady. It also alleges that once he was reinstated, Bliss wished to be considered for the post of full-time chief.

The complaint states, “Although Donald Bliss had no desire to increase his damage, and took steps to avoid that possibility, the town nevertheless hired a permanent chief of police and cost Donald Bliss that promotional opportunity.”

The complaint also calls for a jury trial.