Wareham defamation suit worth jury trial, judge says

By Laura Fedak Pedulli | SouthCoastToday.com

WAREHAM — Two defamation lawsuits brought by Wareham Police Officer Charles Pillsbury against former Selectmen Bruce Sauvageau and Brenda Eckstrom will go to trial, his lawyer said.

Pillsbury and his wife Cara had filed a lawsuit against Sauvageau for comments made four years ago during a public meeting. A similar lawsuit against Eckstrom is under way and is expected to go to trial, although no date for either case has been set, according to a lawyer involved.

On Aug. 29, a judge rejected Sauvageau’s motion to dismiss the case, which is expected to go before a jury soon.

Sauvageau told The Standard-Times that he wasn’t surprised his dismissal request was rejected, as a jury is often required for cases where material facts are disputed.

“It happens all the time, it’s not unusual. It simply allows them access to the court to press their claim as they’re guaranteed under the Constitution,” Sauvageau said. “When in court, the real task is basically proving the claim.”

At issue are comments made by Sauvageau during a Sept. 8, 2008 selectmen’s meeting where he criticized Pillsbury for using pepper spray on Onset resident Paul Andrade and seizing his car and two dogs during a routine traffic stop.

Sauvageau had a known icy relationship with Pillsbury’s late mother, Mary Jane who had served as selectman, and believed the town unfairly reversed a nepotism policy before Pillsbury was hired on the police force in 2002, court records say. Also in March 2006 Pillsbury pulled over Sauvageau’s wife, Rose, and had her car towed on the grounds that it wasn’t insured, further contributing to the friction.

“Mr. Pillsbury … is a disgrace to the Wareham Police Department. He should have never been hired in the first place,” Sauvageau said at the 2008 meeting, according to court documents.

Sauvageau further implied that Pillsbury’s treatment of Andrade stemmed from racial profiling. “I also notice you are a black man. That was your first mistake,” Sauvageau said to Andrade, adding: “to discharge an entire can of Mace into your face tells me that not only does he not have the proper training and proper attitude, but that he’s a gutless coward.”

Last week Superior Court Judge Richard Chin rejected Sauvageau’s request to dismiss the case and said it is up to a jury to determine if his First Amendment rights protect him against liability. Another judge made a similar ruling shortly after the case was filed in 2010.

For his part, Sauvageau said, “I think that all together this is the wrong form and the wrong venue — a court of law — to basically carry out a political agenda. There is no plausible claim here, in my opinion, no damages.. (Pillsbury) still has his job, his pay is unaffected, he was not reprimanded.”

In the civil lawsuit against Eckstrom, who could not be reached for comment, the Pillsburys are accusing the former selectman of making false comments during a June 2009 board meeting that Charles Pillsbury engaged in infidelity. Andrew Gambaccini of Reardon, Joyce and Akerson said the Pillsburys are prepared to go to trial against Eckstrom and are awaiting word from the Plymouth Superior Court on a trial date.

“Charles and Cara Pillsbury are well pleased that Sauvageau’s two attempts to avoid a jury trial have been rejected by the court and they anxiously await their opportunity to have a jury of their peers sit in judgments of the behavior of Sauvageau and Eckstrom,” wrote Gambaccini in a statement on Pillsburys’ behalf.

“I’m eager. I’m looking forward having Mr. Pillsbury on the stand as much as I’ll be on the stand to explain my position,” Sauvageau said. “We’ll see if a jury feels their elected representatives have no right to free speech.”

“Four years from now there will be something else. Local politics is what it is in Wareham,” he added.