Lackawanna’s police officer’s suspension cited amid probe of payments to chief

Officer Christopher Stampone appeared at a Lackawanna City Council meeting earlier this year and inquired into sick time and vacation payments to Police Chief James L. Michel Jr.

Not long after, he was suspended without pay for 90 days.

Michel ordered the suspension because the officer’s public statement violated department regulations.

Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski said the suspension came as a result of an internal investigation. He declined to comment further.

Council President Henry R. Pirowski Jr. said Stampone asked respectful questions at the meeting.

“Officer Stampone simply asked if the city was looking into allegations that the chief received additional sick and vacation pay,” Pirowski said. “He wanted to see what the city’s stance was on the allegations. He was not disrespectful to the chief.

“To my understanding, any questioning of the police chief by a police officer is punishable. In this case, the officer did not question the police chief’s actions.”

Stampone’s suspension ran from Feb. 8 to June 15, according to sources with knowledge of the proceedings.

Lt. William M. Kukoleca Jr., president of the Lackawanna Police Benevolent Association, declined to comment.

One person with more than 20 years of service in the department called the suspension “extremely excessive.”

Stampone “got the shaft for what he did,” said Dana J. Britton, a former director of public safety for the City of Lackawanna.

“He is a good cop with a clean work record and a great family man. Ninety working days is extremely excessive. He’s still a taxpayer.”

Britton said that if Stampone “violated a department regulation, he could have been brought into the chief’s office for a sit-down. You sit and talk to them and cultivate them into good cops.”

For nearly a year, Lackawanna lawmakers have asked City Attorney Antonio M. Savaglio for details about the more than $36,000 in vacation and sick benefits paid to Michel from 2011 to 2013.

Britton called attention to the issue in a series of emails sent in June and July 2012 to Michel and Szymanski. Copies of those emails obtained by The Buffalo News indicate a disbursement to Michel of $45,259 from 2009 to 2012.

The payments stopped when City Comptroller Peggy Bigaj Sobol took office in 2013, Savaglio said.

In April, the city hired outside counsel to handle the investigation.

Council members voted unanimously last Monday to approve the payment of an estimated $45,000 for services rendered to date by the Barclay Damon law firm in the Michel payment investigation.

Attorneys representing the City and the Council appeared Tuesday before State Supreme Court Justice Frederick J. Marshall in the continuing battle over documents related to the Michel probe.

After oral arguments, Marshall ruled in favor of the Council and ordered Assistant City Attorney James Balcarczyk II to surrender the requested documents.

Pirowski said the Michel payment issue could have been resolved with an internal investigation.

“If you are the chief of police, you should not be beyond reproach,” Pirowski said.

“If you were emailed a letter from the public safety director, who is your boss, alleging you were taking additional pay that you were not entitled to, at the very least that should be investigated immediately. That was never done.”

From The Buffalo News

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