Jonathan Bilyk May 12, 2014, 3:27pm

A former Rockford Park District police officer who claims he was fired in retaliation for unearthing corruption that led to a command shakeup and the suspension of a sergeant accused of turning in bogus timesheets will be allowed to proceed with his lawsuit.

In a May 1 ruling, the Second District Appellate Court held that former officer Richard Scot Nason's allegations were legally sufficient to move forward with determining whether he was improperly terminated.

The unpublished order affirms the ruling of Winnebago County Circuit Judge J. Edward Prochaska, who had denied the park district’s motion to dismiss.

Justice Susan F. Hutchinson wrote the order, with justices Kathryn E. Zenoff and Ann B. Jorgenson concurring.

The matter came to the panel on interlocutory appeal and after the trial judge certified a pair of questions, asking whether Nason’s alleged efforts to expose corruption in the department could be used to determine if he had been illegally fired, and whether his suit could be barred under Illinois’ “doctrine of discretionary immunity," which is granted to public bodies in certain circumstances.

The case stems from the 2011 firing of Nason from the Rockord Park District police force.

Nason, according to the order, had worked for the district for 20 years, rising to the rank of sergeant, a position that included the duty of entering officers’ timesheets into department computers.

In October 2010, Nason alleges he met with a park district trustee to discuss possible corruption on the part of a fellow sergeant, identified in the court documents as Terry Vails, who Nason contends had submitted false timesheets.

The matter was turned over to Rockford Park District Human Resources, which launched an investigation that resulted in the “forced” retirements of the police chief and a lieutenant, as well as the suspension of Vails, the order states.

In his suit, Nason claims the interim police chief and another officer, who was close to Vails, worked to find out who reported Vails’ alleged misdeeds to human resources and then, when they learned Nason was responsible, tried  “to do whatever it took to get him (Nason) fired or suspended.”

In early 2011, that other officer, a woman identified in court documents as “Officer Hodges,” allegedly testified Nason “threatened” her and that she “feared him and could not work with him.”

Nason was then tested for a Vicodin, a painkiller he alleges the department knew he was taking as a prescription, and as a result, was suspended and ultimately fired in July 2011.

He subsequently filed a whistleblower suit against the park district, asserting he was fired in retaliation for his efforts to expose corruption on the police force.

Following the suit's filing, the Rockford Park District put a statement on its website, denying "that it has engaged in any retaliation against former Sgt. Nason or anyone else."

The statement also notes that the park district "will vigorously defend against the allegations in the lawsuit. Contrary to the allegations in the lawsuit, the Rockford Park District expressly encourages employees to report any perceived problems or concerns, and no one is retaliated against for doing so."

In 2012, the park district moved to dismiss Nason's suit, arguing that his “allegations were insufficient to establish a clear mandate of public policy to support a claim” for a retaliatory firing. The district also claimed immunity from the suit.

The circuit judge, however, disagreed and ruled in favor of Nason, spurring the park district's appeal.

The district's arguments on interlocutory appeal were rejected earlier this month by the Second District, which agreed with the trial judge’s finding that Nason’s contention that he was uncovering theft should carry legal weight in this case.

In particular, the appellate justices disagreed with the park district’s argument that the issue at the core of the case --the supposed reporting of falsified time sheets-- was “a social and economic issue” rather than a matter of violations of criminal law.

“Here the crime that was reported concerned corruption with a police department. The policy of furthering the prosecution and investigation of a crime within a police department ‘strikes at the heart of a citizen’s social rights, duties and responsibilities,’” Hutchinson wrote for the panel, citing the 1981 case of Palmateer vs. International Harvester. “In the present case, plaintiff was exposing the crime of theft.”

Answering questions of this matter at trial would “materially advance the litigation," Hutchinson wrote, adding that the panel determined legal precedent did not support the park district’s argument for immunity in a retaliatory discharge claim.

The justices remanded the case to the Winnebago County court for further proceedings.

Online records from the Winnebago Court system show the case was continued on May 8 following the appellate court order and that an August 7 status hearing has been set.

According to the records, Chicago attorney Tony Thedford represents Nason and Sara P. Leitenberger represents the park district, as well as its executive director, Timothy Dimke, and John Piccolin, who previously served as its interim police chief.

The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission website shows that Leitenberger, now registered under the last name Yager, works at Laner Muchin, Ltd. in Chicago and Thedord works at a firm bearing his own name in Chicago.

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