Amidst an ongoing civil service hearing regarding previous Westover Police Lt. Aaron Dalton, a lawsuit against the City of Westover was filed this week by the former officer in Monongalia County Circuit Court. Former Westover Police Chief Rick Panico and Westover Officer Zachary Fecsko were also named as defendants in the suit.
Dalton, represented by attorney Christian Riddell, was formally released from the department in February 2022 and alleges violations of the state whistleblowers law, intentional infliction of emotional distress and punitive damages against the city, Panico and Fecsko.
Additionally, Dalton accuses Panico and Fecsko of defamation as well as tortious interference of business for intentionally interfering with his contractual expectancy of continued employment.
The lawsuit claims in 2017, Panico held a department meeting where he stated the “department belonged to the officers,” but that all issues must stay “in house,” saying anyone who talked about department business outside of the department would have “problems.”
The suit continues by outlining a series of incidents in which Dalton claims to have had “problems” after attempting to file formal complaints or make superiors aware of the wrongdoings of other officers, many of which involved Fecsko, that Dalton himself was subsequently punished for.
According to the suit, Dalton claims Panico attempted to demote and subordinate him to Fecsko and other officers, despite Dalton’s superior rank, in a number of ways.
In one example, Dalton claims he was chastised by the former chief after taking a photo of Fecsko sleeping in his cruiser while on duty. Panico allegedly told Dalton he was trying to blackmail Fecsko by taking the picture.
In what the suit says to be an overt attempt to humiliate and disempower Dalton within the department, he was called into a meeting with Panico who placed him on red tag detail and informed him he would lose his supervisory responsibilities after Dalton asked Fecsko to complete his dispatch reports on the weekend instead of waiting until Monday.
He said in response, Fecsko investigated Dalton’s reports, which resulted in the meeting with Panico for which Fecsko was allowed to be present.
Dalton’s suit claims Panico and Fecsko made continued attempts to destroy his reputation and career.
He alleges they engaged in libelous, slanderous and defamatory conduct by persuading officers within the department to sign a petition listing several knowingly false claims regarding Dalton and his supposed acts of misconduct, which included criminal conduct, destruction of evidence, violations of civil rights, and moral and sexual improprieties.
The petition was published repeatedly after being released to news media.
In addition, Dalton alleges the City of Westover violated a state code that grants a right of notice to any accused officer that he or she is entitled to a hearing on the issues by a hearing board or the applicable civil service commission before any punitive action against them is taken.
He claims the petition circulated to local media, which had not been vetted by Panico or Fecsko, was provided to the Westover City Council by City Attorney Tim Stranko, “who utilized it to create a ‘laundry list’ of allegations” against Dalton and given to the council. Dalton claims he was not given notice of the information presented on the list.
Based on those allegations the council determined it had “lost confidence” in Dalton and requested he resign, saying they would pledge the resources to go through the “admin and judicial process that may arise without settlement.”
Dalton was formally terminated in February 2022 by the new Westover Chief Joe Adams, who the suit claims had never met the officer prior to becoming chief, was influenced by the false claims of Fecsko and Panico’s petition and did not attempt to speak with Dalton or allow him to respond to the allegations.
The Dominion Post reached out to Stranko for comment from the city regarding Dalton’s allegations but had not received a response in time for this report.
In the suit, Dalton is seeking compensatory and punitive damages for his economic losses, reputational damage and emotional distress.
He also asks the court to declare the respective rights, duties and obligations of the parties under the Westover City Charter and subject civil service statutes as well as injunctive relief prohibiting the city from using any “laundry list” or other factual allegations against him that are not in compliance with state code.
The ongoing civil service hearing regarding the accusations against Dalton, which began in late February, will continue for the fourth day of testimony on May 8 in the Westover City Council chambers.