WORCESTER – A Worcester Superior Court jury Thursday found against a Millbury official who alleged the Worcester County sheriff’s office fired him for reporting illegal campaign activity at the jail during the 2010 election.
“Whether I won or lost, it’s a somber day,” plaintiff Jude Cristo said outside the courtroom after a jury ruled against him in the civil case by a slim margin.
Mr. Cristo needed a jury to find for him on three elements to prove his case: that he declined to take part in activity he believed to be illegal; that the sheriff’s office took retaliatory action against him after his refusal; and that the retaliation was tied to that refusal.
The jury found unanimously for Mr. Cristo on the first question, and 10 out of 13 jurors found for him on the second question. He needed 11 jurors to find for him to move on to the final question.
“Ten out of 13 is a pretty strong number,” Mr. Cristo said afterward. “I did want to thank the 10 jurors who agreed I was retaliated against for (reporting) campaign abuse.”
Mr. Evangelidis declined a request for an interview after his testimony Tuesday and after the verdict Wednesday.
“We are thankful to the jury for their careful consideration of the facts in rendering a favorable verdict,” he wrote in a prepared statement. “Resolution of this suit was the last issue remaining from the prior administration and we are looking forward to continuing to run a professional and efficient sheriff’s office.”
Mr. Cristo, a former Millbury selectman, had accused the sheriff’s office of terminating his 12-year employment in 2011 because of complaints he says he made accusing some employees of campaigning for an internal sheriff’s candidate during work hours and on jail property.
Public employees are prohibited by law from engaging in political activity using public resources or on work time.
The illegal conduct was alleged to have taken place during the 2010 election, a time in which the presiding sheriff, Guy W. Glodis, was allegedly absent from work while campaigning for state auditor.
His special sheriff, Shawn Jenkins, who now holds the same post in Middlesex County, allegedly ignored complaints about the political activity, which was alleged to have been undertaken by one jail employee running for sheriff and a close friend.
The candidate, Scot Bove, lost the Democratic primary election to Thomas J. Foley, a man who Mr. Cristo testified to supporting on his personal time. Mr. Cristo’s attorney, Timothy M. Burke, underscored numerous times that had he won, Mr. Bove would have been Mr. Jenkins’ boss.
Mr. Jenkins, who was unable to recall answers to many of Mr. Burke’s questions in court Wednesday, told Mr. Burke he never would have worked for Mr. Bove, and only stayed on under new sheriff Lewis G. Evangelidis after being entreated to by his transition team.
Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Evangelidis testified Wednesday that Mr. Cristo’s position as human resources director was eliminated as part of a restructuring of the job position. Mr. Cristo was terminated two days after Mr. Evangelidis took over.
His termination letter states his position was being “abolished” as a result of the consolidation.
At trial, Mr. Cristo testified that before giving him his termination letter, Mr. Jenkins first asked him to sign a letter of resignation, saying it would allow him to stay on another two weeks.
Mr. Burke argued the letter was basically meant to indemnify the sheriff’s department against a lawsuit. Faced with that argument on the stand, Mr. Jenkins agreed it could be viewed as a “release,” but added that in his experience such forms have not prevented people from filing lawsuits.
Mr. Jenkins testified that Mr. Cristo refused to sign it, swore at him and left the room. Mr. Burke argued that the letter – and a later email in which Mr. Jenkins ordered staff not to contact Mr. Cristo – supported his position that his termination sprang from retaliation for the complaints he had lodged against co-workers.
None of the co-workers alleged to have committed wrongdoing was called to testify by either side. Legally, Mr. Cristo did not have to prove wrongdoing took place, only that he reasonably believed it took place, reported it and was fired as a result.
While some of Mr. Cristo’s complaints were put into emails, the most damaging allegations about political activity were allegedly made orally. Lawyers on both sides attempted to chip away at the credibility of the other side’s witnesses Wednesday; Mr. Cristo’s accounting of the facts differed from those of Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Evangelidis.
Mr. Evangelidis stated Wednesday that he didn’t know about Mr. Cristo’s complaints until he was informed he was about to be deposed in the case.
Mr. Evangelidis also testified Wednesday that he had no intention of disciplining Mr. Bove, who retired after the election.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Jenkins testified that before Mr. Bove retired, the office was preparing to demote him for performance issues that developed after the election.
Mr. Cristo had been seeking lost wages, future wages and damages for emotional distress. He was making about $72,000 at the time he was terminated.
Mr. Cristo, who collects a pension about $40,000 less than his normal salary, has found it difficult to get work because of his firing, his attorney said.
Asked whether he would be looking for work, Mr. Cristo, who earns about $2,500 as chairman of the Millbury Board of Assessors, said he hasn’t thought that far ahead. He said he and his wife, Sandy, a selectman in Millbury, live frugally and will continue public service.
“We’ve got our health, and we’re going to continue to do what we do,” he said.