ATLANTIC CITY — Was former Atlantic City police Chief John Mooney a targeted whistle-blower or just a disgruntled employee?
A jury will begin deciding that question today as the civil trial of the city’s former police chief draws to a close after three heated weeks of testimony.
Mooney sued in 2010 claiming he was targeted for a demotion to deputy chief because he reported things he thought were wrong, including the city’s alleged interference in an investigation of sexual misconduct at a firehouse and a decision to remove the city’s K-9 unit from the streets.
The trial has been marked by accusations of wrongdoing, discussions of ex-felons working for the city and questions about the motives behind past mandates of Mayor Lorenzo Langford’s administration. Jurors must now attempt to make sense of a sequence of controversial events in the city administration that spanned two years.
“It’s almost like we got caught in the weeds,” said William Lundsten, an attorney representing the city.
In a closing argument that lasted two hours, Lundsten told the jury that the details of some of the events have bogged down the trial, which comes down to a case of “he said, she said.”
Mooney sued the city, Langford and former Public Safety Director Christine Petersen. A ruling made Friday by Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson, however, has simplified the jury’s task to some degree. Johnson has ruled that Langford and Petersen have no personal liability in the case. That means only the city faces financial consequences from the jury’s decision.
The eight-member panel will decide whether the city violated the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, or CEPA, and if Mooney should receive any compensation. A judge previously ruled the city violated the terms of Mooney’s contract.
Mooney’s demotion was part of massive cuts the city made in 2010, which included laying off 60 police officers and 30 firefighters while demoting several other ranking police.
But the chief’s position is usually immune during such moves, said Mooney’s attorney, John Donnelly.
“It’s called cloaking,” he told the jurors Tuesday. “(It’s) bundling a targeted employee in an otherwise legitimate layoff.”
Langford wanted to get rid of Mooney since he came to office in 2008, Donnelly said. But he didn’t have a reason. The city’s budget troubles gave him one, he argued.
“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” Donnelly said.
Meanwhile, the defense has argued that Mooney was simply a worker unhappy with the circumstances he was dealt.
“Mr. Mooney complained,” Lundsten said. “He didn’t blow the whistle.”
That distinction was important in the closing argument of attorney Robert Tarver, the former city solicitor representing Langford. He revisited testimony from several witnesses who said that decisions Langford and others in his administration made were well within their rights. For a whistle-blower, or CEPA, claim to be sustained, a violation of public policy has to exist, he said.
Testimony given by former PBA President Dave Davidson Jr. also was revisited in closing arguments. Davidson told the court he had a private meeting with Langford during which the mayor asked how he could get rid of Mooney.
“I’m suggesting to you that meeting never happened. It doesn’t make logical sense,” Tarver said, adding that the mayor never would have met alone with Davidson, who had publicly called the mayor “a pimp” and “a thief.”
Davidson and Langford were recently political opponents, both running in this year’s Democratic mayoral primary, which Langford won. Langford is facing a November contest against Republican Don Guardian and has said he believes attempts have been made to sway public opinion with the trial.
Some of the most serious accusations made in the case were not heard by the jury. During an evidence hearing, former Atlantic County Prosecutor Ted Housel said he was concerned that the mayor was talking to known drug dealers at the scene of a drug-related double homicide in 2010 and had him photographed.
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