Melissa Engel says she filed a lawsuit against East Hampton, its police chief and former police sergeant not to reap financial rewards but to stand up against what she says was retaliation against her by the department’s top brass after she questioned town policies regarding the police.
“All citizens should be able to criticize and question our government and any portion of our government without fear of retribution,” she said. “This is not about money, it’s about principle.”
Engel, a Republican and former chairwoman of East Hampton’s Town Council, filed a federal lawsuit last week against acting police Chief Matthew Reimondo, former Sgt. Garritt Kelly and the town, alleging 10 combined counts of constitutional violations by the three.
Town Manager Michael Maniscalco has said the town and police department will not comment on Engel's pending litigation.
Engel says in her federal filing that Reimondo, Kelly and the town violated her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and that Reimondo sought a “malicious prosecution” against her after she sought to eliminate the chief’s position and restructure the police department to save the town money.
In an interview today Engel, who served on the council from 2000 to 2012, said that while some in town have criticized her for filing the legal action and not "letting the issue go," the lawsuit represents a last resort in trying to address what she believes was a pattern of intimidation and harassment by the department’s two leaders.
The controversy has been brewing for years and Engel said she feels she is representing many in town who believe the department’s leadership was flawed but who were afraid to raise the issue.
“Police departments are the branch of government that people are most afraid of. I’ve gone through other channels of trying to remediate this and have failed. This is a democracy, we get to have our opinion. You don’t try to silence people through intimidation. I admire our police department, we have some great guys, but we have some people who are ruining it for the rest.”
Engel was among a group of local officials who sought to eliminate the chief’s job and restructure the department about three years ago in an attempt to cut costs. Then-Town Manager Jeffery O’Keefe formerly proposed the initiative and the chief's job was eliminated in 2010.
Reimondo’s supporters fought back and undertook a fierce political battle to save the chief’s position. They filed petitions for a referendum that saw voters overwhelmingly turn out to support the chief in November of 2010.
Following that vote, Kelly, Reimondo’s right-hand officer in the department, filed a state elections complaint against Engel, alleging she misused absentee ballots in the referendum.
The state’s Elections Enforcement Commission found no wrongdoing in the issue and Engel subsequently filed a complaint against Kelly and Reimondo alleging that the SEEC filing was retaliation against her. A third-party investigation commissioned by the town found that the investigation by Kelly into Engel’s handling of absentee ballots was flawed and that Reimondo failed to adequately supervisor his second-in-command. However, the report also found no evidence that the department's Code of Ethics were violated or that the department’s brass violated policy regarding Conduct Unbecoming of an Officer.
The town took no disciplinary action against either Reimondo or Kelly.
O’Keefe left his job here under pressure in September of 2010. Accused earlier of sexually harrassing three female employees, complaints Reimondo had investigated, he was paid $170,000 under a settlement agreement with the town to leave the job before his contract was up.
Engel and several other Republicans on the council did not seek re-election in 2011, though Engel has said her decision to step down was not related to the controversy involving the police department.
Reimondo and Kelly, who each worked more than 20 years on the East Hampton police force, accepted an early retirement offer in Januaray of this year. Kelly left by the end of that month but Reimondo was hired back to serve as interim chief while the town seeks his replacement.