Lackawanna Police Chief James Michel Jr. on Friday called for a criminal investigation by the state attorney general into who may have lifted a damaging personnel report from his office file drawer.
A 1999 report about “dirty language” he allegedly used toward a subordinate cost him a promotion this week to a top Erie County law enforcement post.
At a press conference he arranged, Michel said he disagreed with several allegations in the report. He denied using a particularly offensive and sexual term, as stated in the report, in referring to the dispatcher.
“What happened 17 years ago was foul language was used among police officers,” he said. “It’s not uncommon in the workplace, especially with police officers, that some obscenities may be said. But I can assure you that at no time were any obscenities ever directed at or to an employee ... but because I was a lieutenant, and I do hold myself to a higher standard, I did agree to take punishment for having used foul language.”
The three-page internal memo detailed an investigation by then-Chief Dennis J. O’Hara’s into concerns raised by other officers. They said a female dispatcher was verbally mistreated by Michel, who at the time was a lieutenant and 20-year officer in the department. They called the verbal abuse part of a continuing pattern.
County Executive Mark Poloncarz withdrew Michel’s name from consideration as commissioner of Central Police Services after he read the disciplinary report.
The report indicated that Michel admitted he “may have” used derogatory and sexist language in the presence of a female dispatcher and even asked if the dispatcher was “going out to get some sex.”
He apologized to the dispatcher and lost 10 days of vacation time.
Michel told the Legislature during his confirmation hearing that he made “no admission of wrongdoing” in 1999, despite giving an apology. On Friday, he said he meant that he never directed derogatory language toward a subordinate.
He also said he hadn’t seen or read the disciplinary letter in his personnel file before Thursday evening when his lawyer downloaded it from The Buffalo News website and forwarded it to him. Although all personnel files are kept in his office, Michel said he never looked at his own.
“As police chief I had access to my file, and it’s never anything I went looking for,” he said. “But there wasn’t anything that was part of my file that I would have removed.”
He expressed disappointment losing the Central Police Services post, which would have meant more responsibilities and pay. He said he did not fault Poloncarz for withdrawing his name from consideration for the job.
But when legislators received a copy of his disciplinary report, they should have shared that information with him and given him a better chance to address the matter, he said.
Legislature Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, asked Michel a few broad questions about the matter during his hearing, but the disciplinary memo had not yet circulated.
“There’s two sides to every story, and I think some questions needed to be asked with this document out there and it could have been better fully explained,” Michel said.
Lorigo said he received a copy of the disciplinary report the day before Michel’s confirmation hearing from an officer. A hard copy of the report was shared with all legislators Thursday morning, after which Poloncarz received a copy and withdrew Michel’s name from consideration.
Michel and his lawyer, Howard Cohen, said whoever stole the report must be held accountable. They called on Lorigo to identify who gave it to him. Michel said he will take legal action against whoever took the file from his office, and will ask the state attorney general’s office for a criminal investigation.
Lorigo has not identified his source.
In a statement, Lorigo said, “As an elected official, I had an obligation to share the communication with my colleagues who were being asked to confirm the recommendation. When asked about the incident in his public testimony, he misled legislators and the public. The report clearly details the events that took place including Chief Michel’s actions and the punishment, both of which were accepted.”
Read more details on the 1999 incident, the response from Poloncarz and other controversies involving Michel on the Politics Now blog, politicsnow.buffalonews.com