Fired York County jailer alleges sheriff cover-up, violation of whistleblower rights

08/20/2014 12:54 AM

08/20/2014 12:56 AM

A York County jail officer fired last year after voicing concerns about the way other officers handled a suicidal inmate in a restraint chair is alleging a cover-up by the sheriff’s office in a federal civil rights lawsuit.

Michael Billioni, who had worked at the county jail for almost three years, claims his free speech rights were violated by his firing and that sheriff’s officials broke South Carolina’s “whistleblower” law, which is designed to protect employees who report allegations of wrongdoing.

The lawsuit, filed in the Rock Hill Division of the U.S. District Court of South Carolina, names the sheriff’s office, Sheriff Bruce Bryant and York County. Billioni is seeking back pay and damages for “mental anguish.”

Bryant denies Billioni’s allegations and pointed out that he asked the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate the death of inmate Joshua Grose.

“Allegations in a lawsuit are just that, allegations; they are not fact,” Bryant said in a statement provided by Kris Jordan, the attorney for the sheriff’s office. “We will vigorously defend against these allegations and will look forward to having the opportunity to fully respond to them at the appropriate place and time.”

“I made all of my employees, this (jail) facility and all of our records available for the criminal investigation. No attempt was made to cover up or hide any evidence from SLED’s investigation.”

Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett cited SLED’s findings in June when he decided that no charges would be filed against any jail officers present when Grose died on Oct. 20.

Grose, 34, had been wearing a football helmet for his own protection. He died after repeatedly banging his head on a concrete wall while in the restraint chair at the jail. His death was ruled a suicide. Grose had been charged with two counts of murder after police say he ran over his stepmother and a neighbor while driving a car he had stolen from the neighbor.

Grose was violent and combative, Brackett said in June, and the force used to restrain him was reasonable. Grose began injuring himself while in custody, and officers used a stun gun and other techniques to try to restrain him, according to the SLED investigative report, obtained by The Herald under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Grose also tried to drown himself in a toilet and repeatedly told officers he wanted to die and wanted them to kill him.

Billioni referred questions about the lawsuit to his lawyers, Marybeth Mullaney and Jennifer Munter Stark, both of Mount Pleasant.

Mullaney said in a statement that Billioni was conscientious about his duties and responsibilities at the jail.

“Part of those duties were to guard and protect,” she said. “An employer must not retaliate against an employee who voices concerns under these circumstances by either starting an investigation of the employee, or by terminating the employee.”

Billioni was not working the day Grose died, according to the lawsuit, but the next day he watched jail surveillance video of jail officers’ attempts to force Grose into the restraint chair and became “extremely disturbed.” He saw an officer hit Grose 10 to 12 times, according to the lawsuit, which also alleges that the restraint chair was “purposefully” tied to a door placed near a wall so Grose could repeatedly hit his head against the wall.

The officer who repeatedly hit Grose had been disciplined eight months earlier for “assaulting” another inmate in the restraint chair, the lawsuit alleges, and Billioni “believed this officer presented a potential danger to other inmates and that the York County defendants were attempting to cover it up.”

Sheriff’s officials were not “forthright” with the public, the lawsuit alleges, when explaining what happened at subsequent news conferences and in public statements after the incident by saying “all our officers did exactly what they were supposed to do.”

Billioni told his wife, identified as a “research analyst” for a Charlotte television station, his concerns, according to the lawsuit. Billioni’s wife, who is not named in the lawsuit, sent an email to the station’s news director suggesting an investigation into the inmate’s death. The TV station filed a Freedom of Information Act request, seeking access to the video.

When Billioni went to work on Oct. 22, the lawsuit alleges, he was placed under investigation for “leaking information.” Three days later, he detailed his allegations of wrongdoing in a statement to a SLED investigator. In the lawsuit, Billioni alleges that the SLED agent told him he “had broken no rules or laws” by speaking with his spouse or by documenting his concerns.

Later on Oct. 25, Billioni was fired for violating sheriff’s office policy concerning employee rules of conduct and confidential information, according to a letter signed by Sheriff Bryant included in the lawsuit.

Billioni’s lawsuit alleges that his firing was retaliation for sharing his concerns about Grose’s treatment with his wife and with SLED investigators. Since his firing, Billioni has been unable to find similar work, the lawsuit claims, and his firing has had a “chilling” effect on other potential whistleblowers.

Billioni’s lawsuit alleges that he had a right to speak as an American citizen and that “at no time” did he or his spouse disclose confidential information.

In Billioni’s written statement to SLED, obtained by The Herald, he describes what he saw on the jail video. He wrote that he initially denied saying anything about the video to protect his wife. Billioni write that he was “distraught over what I had seen,” and admitted that he told sheriff’s officials that, “I was responsible for the leak because I told my wife.” He wrote that he was “upset over what I saw and didn’t want it swept under the rug,” and that he was “sorry over the mess it has created.”

The lawsuit states a class-action suit would bring in other officers in a similar situation, but no other officers are named as plaintiffs.

The family of another York County inmate who died after being in the restraint chair in 2006 settled a wrongful death suit against the county for almost $1 million, court records show. Federal and state court records do not indicate that any lawsuit has been filed on Grose’s behalf concerning his death.

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