Ex-Finance Head Rips Berlin, Mayor In Defamation Suit

BERLIN – Nearly three years to the day since Berlin Finance Director Ron Bireley was officially fired amid controversy and veiled hints of missing funds, the former mayor and councilman late last month filed suit against the town and Mayor Tom Cardinale seeking an undisclosed amount in compensatory and punitive damages.

Bireley, through his attorney Robin R. Cockey of Cockey, Brennan and Maloney of Salisbury, filed the suit in Worcester County Circuit Court on Dec. 26, contending “he was subjected to a frivolous, unmerited but widely publicized investigation for misconduct and then fired, depriving him of his rights to substantive and procedural due process.” Bireley was fired by Cardinale on Jan. 7, 2005 and the termination was confirmed with a majority vote of the town council three days later.

With the lawsuit, Bireley is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, an award of compensatory damages and an award of attorney fees and costs. As to Cardinale, the only individual named in the suit, Bireley is also seeking an award of punitive damages.

From the beginning, Cardinale contended Bireley’s dismissal was the result of differences in philosophy and conflicting comfort levels with the amount of debt the town was carrying at the time, but the former finance director alleges in the suit “Mayor Cardinale engineered Mr. Bireley’s humiliation during an ostentatious but utterly groundless investigation of fiscal wrong-doing.”

The suit alleges Cardinale had recently been elected and had made no secret of his intention to clean house, ridding the administration of incumbents such as Bireley. In addition, the suit alleges Cardinale and Bireley had public disagreements over whether the town should retain its municipal electric plant.

“Mr. Bireley believes, and therefore alleges, Mayor Cardinale wished to discredit him publicly,” the court documents read. “Finally, even though Mayor Cardinale knew that the town had been given a ‘clean bill of health’ by its independent auditor, he had repeatedly made statements in public and to the media that he wished to have the town’s finances investigated by the state police. Mayor Cardinale never supplied any justification for these statements, and there was none.”

The apparent dispute between the mayor and finance director boiled to a head on Jan. 7, 2005. According to the statement of facts in the suit, Bireley arrived at work around 6:15 a.m. with his 10-year-old grandson to check his messages and attend to other business before taking the child to school at 7:30 a.m. Shortly after Bireley arrived, Cardinale and two unidentified men entered the office at which time the mayor pointed to Bireley and walked out of the office, according to court documents.

The two men identified themselves as Maryland State Police officers and took Bireley to another office for questioning, leaving his grandson waiting in the hallway. The troopers told Bireley they were there to investigate “missing funds,” despite Bireley telling an audit of the town’s finances had just been concluded verifying all town funds were properly accounted for.

Bireley told the officers he had to take his grandson to school and that he would return to speak with the officers. However, the officers refused to allow Bireley to leave, instead escorting Bireley and the child to his school, which only added to the humiliation, according to the suit.

When they returned to Town Hall, the officers sealed off Bireley’s office as a crime scene in the presence of several town employees and sealed and seized his computer for forensic analysis. Two hours later, the suit says, Cardinale summoned Bireley to his office to fire him. The council then voted 3-2 to confirm the dismissal.

While Cardinale said this week he is not at liberty to speak about the suit at this time, he has said from the beginning Bireley’s dismissal and the arrival of the police to seize financial documents were mutually exclusive of each other and called the timing of the events an unfortunate coincidence.

However, the civil suit filed by Bireley contradicts that assertion.

“The defendants’ actions and statements were made intentionally, maliciously and for the purpose of humiliating him publicly,” court documents read. “In taking the actions and making the statements in question, the defendants knew Mr. Bireley was innocent of any misconduct, or were grossly indifferent to whether he was innocent of such misconduct.”

The suit includes two counts for which Bireley alleges he is due compensation: a denial of rights to substantive due process; and false light defamation.

“The defendants’ actions and omissions have denied Mr. Bireley substantive due process in that they have unfairly stigmatized him and greatly diminished his opportunity for re-employment in a comparable position,” the suit reads.

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