Wrongfully terminated lieutenant names town, former Selectmen, resident in federal lawsuit

Jaime Rebhan | Wareham Week

Wareham Police Lieutenant Donald Bliss, who was fired in 2009 and reinstated last year by the state Civil Service Commission, has named the town, former interim Town Administrator John Sanguinet, a former Board of Selectmen, and a Wareham resident in a federal lawsuit for their alleged roles in his termination.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on January 20 by Bliss’ attorney, Andrew J. Gambaccini, alleges that the defendants acted in “various ways so as to bring about the illegal discharge” of Bliss and “attempted to mask the true motivations for their actions through the advancement of unsubstantiated and meritless charges designed to injure Donald Bliss, his career, his reputation, his family and his personal life.”

The lawsuit alleges that Bliss was targeted by members of a former Board of Selectmen because, in 2002, following a civil service promotional examination “and an approved assessment center,” he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant over former Wareham Police Sergeant Eileen Grady, a childhood friend of then-Selectman M. Jane Donahue.

Bliss’ wife and children are also named as plaintiffs in the suit. No dollar amount is listed for damages sought. Gambaccini said in a phone call that the amount will be determined at a later date in the process.

Bliss was fired in February, 2009 by then-Interim Town Administrator John Sanguinet for what officials said was an improper use of his town-issued cell phone and for allegedly using his police position to sell alarm systems.

After the Civil Service Commission’s unanimous vote that the lieutenant had been wrongfully terminated, Bliss was given his job back plus more than $200,000 in back pay. He returned to work in June, 2011, but has been out of work since mid-summer due to medical issues and use of vacation time.

“Our investigation shows that there was total strategic planning on this,” Bliss said of his firing, adding that he wants “to hold everyone who’s responsible, accountable.”

Grady “felt aggrieved by her failure to receive the promotion and later filed a lawsuit over the non-selection,” according to the lawsuit documents.

Following the promotion, Bliss was “involved in a number of employment-related issues with Sergeant Grady, providing information through investigations and hearings that was not favorable to her,” according to the lawsuit. “As a consequence, Grady bore animosity toward Donald Bliss for his receipt of a promotion and for what she viewed as his harmful treatment of her following his promotion.”

The situation came to a head in 2008 and 2009, the lawsuit alleges.

“Grady was friends with members of the Wareham Board of Selectmen as that body was constituted in 2008 and 2009,” according to the lawsuit. That Board of Selectmen consisted of Bruce Sauvageau, M. Jane Donahue, Brenda Eckstrom, John Cronan, and James Potter. All are named as defendants in the suit.

Grady had a “deep personal relationship with defendant M. Jane Donahue that stretched back to their days in school together as children,” according to the lawsuit. “As a result of those personal relationships and allegiances with Grady, members of the Wareham Board of Selectmen, including M. Jane Donahue, used their official positions with the Town to target and to take action against Donald Bliss.”

Soon after former-Town Administrator John McAuliffe entered into a three-year contract with the town in August, 2007, Selectman Eckstrom presented him with a real estate advertisement that involved Bliss and contained his Police Department phone number, according to the lawsuit.

McAuliffe asked then-Police Chief Thomas Joyce to look into the matter.

“Donald Bliss took corrective action and ported his long held Department cell phone number to a private account the same day,” according to court documents.

Joyce, who now serves as Fire Chief in Marion, determined that there were “perhaps five calls” that might have occurred when Bliss was working, “amounting to twelve minutes of time and no cost to the Town because of the nature of the Town’s cellular telephone plan,” according to the lawsuit.

Additionally, McAuliffe has testified that he considered the town’s lack of a cell phone policy, lack of past practice on cell phone usage, lack of cost to the town, and Bliss’ lack of a prior disciplinary history and his “exceptional work history” in determining that there was “nothing there” with respect to the “seriousness of the cell phone issue,” according to the lawsuit.

Bliss was reprimanded with 16 hours of “punishment duty” — work for no compensation — for the incident. He submitted a memorandum to McAuliffe in 2008 to say that it had been served. Chief Joyce also did not compensate Bliss for two, four-hour “overtime slips, meaning Donald Bliss ultimately worked twenty-four hours without pay,” according to the suit.

In June, 2008, McAuliffe was placed on leave about a year into his three-year contract.

“In adopting a resolution citing reasons for that leave, the Board [of Selectmen] cited that McAuliffe had failed to act in connection with a Town employee who assertedly had used a Town phone for a private business,” the lawsuit says. “That employee was Donald Bliss.”

On June 18, Sanguinet assumed the role of interim town administrator. He reopened the inquiry into the cell phone incident.

“The Board installed Sanguinet as an interim Town Administrator in order to dangle the permanency of the position over Sanguinet’s head and to ensure that he did the Board’s bidding — something that McAuliffe had not done and that prompted his removal,” the suit alleges.

Chief Joyce has testified that he once asked Sanguinet why the Board of Selectmen had animosity for him, and Sanguinet said that “the animosity derived in part from the situation involving Sergeant Grady,” according to the lawsuit.

Attorney Steven Torres was hired and charged with conducting an investigation of Bliss, according to the suit. Torres’ investigation also included Bliss’ work with the alarm company.

The town was “made well aware” that Bliss had already served punishment duty because of the cell phone incident, but “Sanguinet and other Town officials including the named defendants chose to ignore that fact and press ahead with the plan to sanction” Bliss, according to the lawsuit.

In January, 2009, Sanguinet delivered a letter Chief Joyce for delivery to Bliss indicating that Bliss would be placed on paid administrative leave pending an appointing authority hearing. When delivering the letter, Sanguinet said the matter was “out of my hands,” according to the lawsuit.

Bliss was terminated in February, 2009, and appealed the decision to the Civil Service Commission. During Civil Service Commission proceedings, resident Lisa Bindas was presented as a witness for the town.

Bindas, through a report and affidavit from town counsel, alleged that Bliss “made sales calls regarding a residential alarm for her home while in uniform and indicated that to purchase an alarm from Donald Bliss would be to secure better service from the Police Department, who would know which alarms are his,” according to the lawsuit.

The Civil Service Commission said that Bindas and Bliss “presented starkly different versions of the details of this transaction” and called Bindas’ testimony “unpersuasively vague and inconsistent,” according to the lawsuit.

Bindas had been before the Board of Selectmen in late 2007 and 2008, attempting to get that board to issue a cease and desist order for hauling that was being done on her street, according to the suit. Members of the Board of Selectmen had said on multiple occasions that the board was being placed in the middle of a neighborhood feud.

“On May 19, 2009, after Donald Bliss was terminated, the Board [of Selectmen], after almost two years, issued a cease and desist order,” according to the lawsuit. “The Board [of Selectmen] granted the request long made by Bindas based upon her willingness to concoct allegations against Donald Bliss.”

The lawsuit lists extensive damage to familial relationships and finances for members of the Bliss family.

“It was my life,” Bliss said of his work on the Wareham Police Department. “I have a blue light for a heart.”

Bliss seeks compensatory damages and punitive damages against all parties, as well as attorneys’ fees and any further relief the court deems necessary.

The Civil Service Commission can “can give you your back pay, lost benefits, but it can’t give you any compensation … for essentially what you suffered through for a period of time,” said Gambaccini in explaining the reasoning behind the lawsuit. “We are going to try to make [Bliss] and his family whole as best we can.”

Sanguinet, Donahue, Eckstrom, and Cronan all said they had not yet seen the lawsuit and thus could not comment on the issue.

Sauvageau, Potter, and Bindas could not immediately be reached for comment.

Current Town Administrator Mark Andrews said he could not comment on “personnel matters.”