Cook gives reasons for firing officers
Published 8:53 am Thursday, May 12, 2016
By Lynn Hall
Former Mocksville Police Chief Robert Cook testified last week that he had numerous reasons for firing three of his officers including bad attitudes, failures to perform their duties, harassment of other officers, going out of town while on duty and in the case of Major Ken Hunter and Lt. Rick Donathan, mishandling of drug cases.
Under questioning by the plaintiff’s attorney Robert Elliot, Cook said he and his assistant chief, Major Daniel Matthews, had repeatedly tried to warn the officers of their performance issues, but nothing changed. Cook was asked numerous questions about why he continued to promote the officers and why there was nothing in their personnel files to reflect those allegations.
“It wasn’t my policy to write things down,” Cook testified. “We didn’t manage with notes and sticky pads.”
Cook stated that he found that verbal warnings worked best because “if you wrote it down, the officers would say they didn’t know what you meant.”
Cook testified that Medlin was not following through with cases and not doing all the interviews. He said Donathan was consistently late for work, late with his daily log sheets and his time sheets and left his vehicle running in the parking lot after being told not to. He also stated that he had reports that Medlin and Hunter were harassing other officers.
The former police chief said he’d been told that there were a number of officers who did not want to work with Hunter and were saying they would quit rather than be under his supervision. One of those was Stuart Shore. He alleged that Shore was being harassed by Medlin and Hunter and they had threatened to plant drugs on him and he thought they were breaking into his office and reading his emails.
Cook was asked if he spoke to Hunter about these charges.
“No, Stuart was so torn up by all the harassing, I didn’t want to make it worse,” Cook said.
Plaintiff’s attorney Robert Elliot asked if Cook had talked to Hunter to get his side of the story, but Cook said he had not. “I observed it,” he replied.
Cook’s most serious charge against Major Ken Hunter was Hunter’s alleged role in the handling of a drug case against the manager of a convenience store in Mocksville, Mike Goyani in 2011. Narcotics officers had made buys of illegal substances from the store and a raid was planned for Dec. 6. Cook stated that there were no drugs found at the store during that raid, but a search of Goyani’s residence did turn up illegal drugs and cash.
“Goyani said he had been told by Major Hunter to destroy the drugs,” Cook testified. “We asked if he would make a statement to that fact and he said no, Hunter had helped him and he didn’t want to get him in trouble.”
Hunter’s side of the story was that Goyani had approached him as he was getting his oil changed and said he wanted to talk. Goyani was instructed to come to the station. He did and brought with him three small vials of synthetic marijuana. Goyani had purchased them out of state where they were legal and he wanted to know if they were illegal in North Carolina. Hunter said he checked the ingredients and found that with a change in state law, the substance was now illegal.
“I told him they had to be destroyed, but Mr. Goyani said he wanted to return them and get his money back,” Hunter testified. “Since he was a local businessman and had brought the vials into the station on his own, I told him he could take them and return them to recoup his money.”
It was Cook’s belief that Hunter warned Goyani of the impending raid. He said Hunter had lied about what time Goyani had come into the department to meet. “Hunter said they met at 9 a.m., but Donna Lawrence (the administrative secretary) said she was on her way to lunch when he arrived,” Cook stated.
Hunter testified that he did not learn until two days after the raid that there had been a controlled purchase by undercover agents the day before the raid, but that he did not know in advance of any action to be taken.
Cook said he was so upset with Hunter over this alleged violation that he decided at that moment that Hunter would be fired.
Cook also alleged that Medlin was aware of the raid. He testified that when he and the others left for the raid, Hunter and Medlin were standing in the back parking lot watching.
In redirect, Plaintiff’s Attorney Robert Elliot asked Cook “if he made an assumption that Medlin knew based on what he saw in the parking lot. Wasn’t that your testimony yesterday?”
“I believe so,” Cook stated. Elliot asked if Cook had just made that up and Cook allowed that he might not be sure. “When we heard what Goyani had to say, what he did, then I knew Hunter knew and I figured they (Hunter and Medlin) were close and so Medlin must know, too,” the chief testified.
“Did you consider that a firing factor?” Elliot asked, in terms of Medlin’s termination. Cook said no.
Elliot then stated the records would show that Medlin had been out on medical leave on Dec. 5 and 6 and could not have been standing in the parking lot. “So your assumption about Medlin would be false?”
Elliot also questioned whether there was evidence that Rick Donathan had been involved in the Goyani case. Cook replied that on the Friday before the raid the MPD had received a call about an illegal buy at the convenience store. He testified that Matthews had been monitoring the radio and had told officers on duty not to respond as it was being handled by narcotics. It was Cook’s belief that Donathan had then called Hunter to inform him of the raid.
“Didn’t you testify yesterday that Donathan wasn’t involved in this case?” Elliot asked.
“Yes,” Cook said, “because he was not directly involved.”
The Mocksville Police Department, under Cook’s leadership, had two assistant chiefs. Cook promoted Matthews to assistant chief over patrol and Major Hunter, assistant chief over investigations. Hunter had testified that there had never been two assistant prior to that time, and when he was told he was getting a promotion to major and assistant chief, he was a captain at the time. He said he was told that Lt. Matthews, who was of a lesser rank and had less experience, was also being promoted to major and assistant chief.
Hunter contends that he asked if this was because the town board would not allow a black officer to be the second in command. He testified that Cook agreed.
Cook denied that allegation.
The defense made frequent reference to the fact that Hunter, an African American, had had several promotions under Cook’s leadership and that up until November, he had not been terminated for any other reasons.
Cook was also questioned about misconduct and even criminal allegations against several officers within the Mocksville Police Department, including being intoxicated at work, drug use, theft and breaking into an FBI vehicle. Elliot asked if those officers had been terminated or allowed to resign. Cook said they had resigned. He agreed he had not fired anyone before or after the three plaintiffs during his tenure as chief.
The former police chief also denied drinking or being intoxicated on the job or of any mishandling of funds.
Defensive attorney Philip Van Hoy, of the Charlotte firm of Van Hoy, Reutlinger, Adams and Dunn, asked all three officers if any charges of misconduct or corruption had ever been issues with regard to the Mocksville Police Department. All three stated that to their knowledge, an investigation had never been carried out.
The letters of termination contained similar language, informing the officers they were at will employees and were being terminated at the will of their employer. Reasons noted in all three letters were insubordination and behavior unbecoming to an officer.
Cook did testify that there had never been any personnel evaluations done on the officers in his department, and there were no records of any behavior or attitude problems recorded in those files.