Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick violated the state's Whistleblowers' Protection Act by retaliating against a police officer who spurred an investigation into the mayor's family and inner circle, a Wayne County judge ruled Tuesday.
"Praise the Lord," Officer Harold Nelthrope said when a Free Press reporter broke the news to him.
Nelthrope, a former mayoral bodyguard, said he was surprised and elated to learn that Circuit Judge Michael Callahan rejected Kilpatrick's bid to dismiss Nelthrope's lawsuit -- instead ruling that his case was so strong it should go directly to a jury to decide how much he should be paid.
Callahan's ruling damages Kilpatrick's efforts to justify his controversial firing of a top police official whose allegations have posed a grave threat to the mayor's political career. It also is significant because judges rarely ask juries to award damages without first holding a trial.
Kilpatrick's lawyer, Samuel McCargo, said the ruling will be appealed because Callahan's ruling explores new interpretations of the law.
"The court appears to have gone ahead and tried the Nelthrope case," McCargo said. "That did surprise me."
Nelthrope's attorney, Michael Stefani, said he plans to ask a jury to award Nelthrope between $1.5 million and $3 million. A mediator earlier recommended the city settle with Nelthrope and with fired former Deputy Police Chief Gary Brown for a total of $2 million, but the mayor said he would not do so. The city would cover any payout.
Nelthrope sued Kilpatrick and the city last year after the administration released a confidential Detroit police internal affairs memo naming Nelthrope as the source of allegations of misconduct by the mayor's police bodyguards.
Nelthrope also told investigators about a rumored wild party at the Manoogian Mansion, the mayor's official residence.
Reporters and State Police revealed that Kilpatrick's police bodyguards received inordinate amounts of overtime, but found no evidence the party occurred.
Callahan wrote: "There can be no doubt there was a causal connection between Officer Nelthrope's disclosures and the release of the memorandum since it happened so quickly in time.... The memorandum pointed to Officer Nelthrope unequivocally as the source of the information and...the mayor used the media to denounce Officer Nelthrope publicly as a liar."
Callahan referred to a TV news report in which Kilpatrick called Nelthrope a liar and said he hoped the officer's family was watching. Nelthrope also is suing the mayor for slander.
The mayor's lawyers argued that Kilpatrick is immune from slander charges because of his position.
Callahan rejected that claim and said a jury will decide that part of the suit.
"The mayor's public denunciation of Officer Nelthrope as a liar was not done as mayor of the city of Detroit, but was an expression of his own anger which had nothing to do with his public duties," Callahan wrote.
Stefani said he will likely drop the slander charge because of the victory on the whistleblower claim.
Nelthrope, 48, has been on leave from the police department since May 2003, when former Deputy Chief Brown said Kilpatrick fired him for investigating Nelthrope's allegations.
Brown had been head of the department's internal affairs unit. He then also sued, citing the whistleblowers' law.
Also on Tuesday, Callahan rejected the city's bid to dismiss Brown's case.
"A jury, not this court, must decide whether or not Mayor Kilpatrick's stated reason for Deputy Chief Brown's demotion and his removal as head of the PAB was true or not," Callahan wrote, referring to the police department's Professional Accountability Bureau.
Stefani praised Callahan's rulings and said Brown's case is more complicated than Nelthrope's.
He said he will have to convince a jury that Brown was fired because he began investigating the mayor and his inner circle, and not because he wasn't doing his job well, as the city claims.