WORCESTER – A Worcester Superior Court jury heard opening statements Tuesday in a whistleblower lawsuit in which a former Millbury selectman alleges he was fired by the county sheriff for reporting unlawful political activity.
Jude Cristo, a former Millbury selectman who worked for the sheriff’s office for a dozen years, alleges in the civil case that Worcester County Sheriff Lewis G. Evangelidis fired him in 2011 in retaliation for reporting political activity that occurred prior to the sheriff’s election in 2010.
Mr. Evangelidis denies the claim, with a lawyer for his office Tuesday saying Mr. Cristo’s position as human resources director at the jail was eliminated for efficiency.
Mr. Cristo, now 59, serves as chairman of the Millbury Board of Assessors. His lawyer said he’s been out of work since he lost his job.
Mr. Cristo’s lawsuit dates to September 2011, eight months after his termination. The case wound its way through the courts for years before reaching a jury Tuesday.
“There was nothing he (did) wrong – only in the sense that he had the ethics to insist that people do their jobs,” Timothy M. Burke, Mr. Cristo’s lawyer, told jurors Tuesday afternoon.
Mr. Burke laid out for jurors the highlights of his complaint, which alleges that Mr. Cristo was retaliated against for reporting illegal political activity by office employees campaigning for veteran jail administrator Scot Bove.
Mr. Bove – at the time assistant deputy superintendent at the jail – ran against Thomas J. Foley in the Democratic primary for sheriff in 2010. Mr. Bove lost to Mr. Foley, who then lost to Mr. Evangelidis, a Republican, in the general election.
Mr. Cristo alleged that Mr. Bove and other sheriff employees spent work time campaigning, and that when he reported the activity, no action was taken. He alleged that Mr. Evangelidis snubbed him at his inauguration, and got rid of him two days after assuming office.
Mr. Evangelidis maintains that Mr. Cristo’s position was eliminated after he decided to do some consolidation of positions for his new administration.
“This case is going to be about one man going (to the sheriff’s office) and changing the culture,” a lawyer for the office, Andrew J. Abdella, told jurors in his opening statement.
Mr. Abdella said Mr. Evangelidis ran on a platform of shaping up the office, and that his decision to eliminate Mr. Cristo’s position was part of keeping that vow. He said the office had budget problems in 2011 and that Mr. Cristo’s job was combined with another to save money.
Mr. Cristo’s complaint alleges he was qualified for the new job, a viewpoint the sheriff’s office disputes.
According to his complaint, Mr. Cristo directed human resources and payroll, in addition to numerous other duties, and never received any complaints about his performance.
Turmoil began during the 2010 election, it says, after Mr. Cristo reported his concerns about Mr. Bove and others campaigning on taxpayer time.
Mr. Cristo said he informed his boss, Special Sheriff Shawn P. Jenkins, that Mr. Bove was not performing all his duties and was marking himself present for full days worked when he was actually absent and “presumably out campaigning.”
Mr. Cristo alleged he told Mr. Jenkins that “a number of other” employees, including Capt. Jason Dickhaut, were assisting Mr. Bove during work hours and had regularly requested that an office payroll assistant enter missed punches in the time card system.
Mr. Cristo alleged that he witnessed Capt. Dickhaut disseminating nomination papers on the grounds of the sheriff’s office, and that he also saw Capt. Dickhaut passing out Bove bumper stickers to the woman who had allegedly been asked to punch other people’s time cards.
Public employees are prohibited by law from engaging in political activity using public resources or on work time.
Mr. Cristo said Capt. Dickhaut’s absence caused problems with payroll processing, but that neither Mr. Jenkins nor the department’s deputy superintendent did anything after his complaints.
Instead, he alleged, Capt. Dickhaut, on Feb. 19, 2010, entered his office and initiated an “extremely hostile, loud and intense confrontation” regarding his concerns.
“Jenkins sat in the adjacent office with his door open and later (admitted) to plaintiff that he heard the entire exchange and laughed about it when asked what he (was) going to do about it,” Mr. Cristo’s complaint reads.
Mr. Cristo alleged he met with Mr. Jenkins and Deputy Superintendent Paul Legendre in June 2010 to reiterate his concerns and also report new concerns about missing two-way radios worth $800.
Mr. Cristo said he informed both men that he had written an account of Capt. Dickhaut’s comments to him in February, but that neither asked him to submit it.
Several months later, at Mr. Evangelidis’ inauguration, Mr. Cristo alleged he was snubbed by the new sheriff upon trying to introduce himself.
“Jude Cristo?” he alleged Mr. Evangelidis said to him “in an interrogatory manner” before walking away.
Two days later, Mr. Cristo said, he was called into Mr. Jenkins’ office, told his position was being “abolished” and asked to resign.
When he refused, he alleges, Mr. Jenkins slid him an envelope containing a termination letter and his final paycheck.
Mr. Cristo alleged jail administrators then improperly handled his retirement process in a manner that led to him receiving less money than he should have.
After Mr. Cristo’s dismissal, the complaint says, Mr. Evangelidis hired Rebecca Pellegrino, the 16-hour-per-week treasurer of Barre, to serve in the newly-created position of director of administration and finance/chief financial officer. Mr. Cristo argued there was nothing that would have disqualified him from the position.
Mr. Abdella, the sheriff’s lawyer, said Tuesday that Mr. Jenkins told Mr. Evangelidis that Mr. Cristo did not have enough of a finance background for the new position.
The T&G reported Mr. Cristo’s departure shortly after he and another employee were let go. At the time, he said little about what happened but called the office a “political nightmare.”
Mr. Jenkins at the time told the T&G that the office combined its human resources position with its chief financial officer position for efficiency.
The 2010 election took place after Worcester County Sheriff Guy W. Glodis left in 2009 to run for state auditor. At the time the alleged improprieties took place, Mr. Jenkins was managing the operation.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Mr. Glodis declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying he did not know enough about it to weigh in.
Testimony in the case is scheduled to resume Wednesday. Mr. Burke told jurors Tuesday that Mr. Cristo is seeking back pay as well as compensation for lost future wages; the administrator was making about $72,000 per year at the time of his departure.
The lawsuit names the sheriff’s department as the defendant. Individuals, including Mr. Evangelidis, were named as defendants initially but dismissed over the years.