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Town of Beloit chairman staying quiet on $1.49 million judgement

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ANN MARIE AMES
May 14, 2011
— The new chairman of the Beloit Town Board isn’t sure what to say about the $1.49 million in damages the town faces after a jury Thursday found seven town officials liable in a federal employee rights case.

The town faces four more such trials, so Rob Pavlik thinks he’d better keep quiet for now.


“We’re still in litigation with several other cases,” Pavlik said late Friday. “I’m not sure where it’s going and not sure what’s going to happen. From our perspective, from my perspective, there’s not a whole lot that can be done for now.”


Pavlik was elected in April and is not one of the town officials named in the liability verdict.


The jury Thursday awarded the money to Willie and Mary Abegglen, a former police sergeant and the current court clerk for the town of Beloit.


Of that total, the jury found former Police Chief John Wilson and current Administrator Bob Museus liable for $500,000 each for their actions, said Bill Rettko, attorney for the Abegglens.


The rest of the damages were awarded for the Abegglens’ lost wages, lost benefits and emotional pain and suffering, Rettko said.


The jury found that seven people were liable for violating the couple’s rights. Only Wilson and Museus were liable for damages, Rettko said. The other five were former or current members of the town board.


The town’s liability insurance will cover the cost of the damages, Rettko said.


The jury’s verdict corrects what had been spin on behalf of the town to cover up the racist attitude of its former police chief, Rettko said.


“The town learned that they had a department head that had racist attitudes, tendencies and views,” Rettko said. “Instead of properly correcting that, they tried to keep it in house and tried to dust it under the carpet.”


According to court documents, Mary Abegglen told Wilson she would not lie about his use of racial slurs in the office after he was accused in a memo of discriminating against an employee. She also responded in an investigation of the matter and later took part in a union vote of no confidence against Wilson, the documents state.


Willie Abegglen talked to Wilson about his behavior after the memo about discrimination was released.


In both cases, the Abegglens’ right to speak was protected by federal employment laws, Rettko said. Mary Abegglen also was protected by the First Amendment, he said.


In early 2009, the town reprimanded Wilson in writing and required him to take a sensitivity class after the police union in late 2008 filed a complaint against him. At the time, Museus said the matter was politically motivated.


Wilson was accused of making racist statements about a local business owner, Beloit residents and a department employee, according to court documents obtained by the Gazette since 2008.


In January, an attorney for the owner of a towing company suing the town posted a video to YouTube in which Wilson admitting to using the “N-word” in the work place.


Last month, a different jury found that race was a factor when former Wilson denied local business owner Anthony Smith the right to apply to be on the department’s call list for towing services.


Four more cases filed by current or former employees of the town are scheduled to be tried in the fall in federal court in Madison.


Rettko said the damages are “significantly higher” than those he has been involved with. The evidence blasted Museus’ explanation that the complaints about Wilson came from a few disgruntled employees or were politically motivated, Rettko said.


“Evidence supported that courageous people stepped forward to let the town know what was going on in their government,” Rettko said. “And they were punished severely for that.”


Pavlik said that even though he and other board members cannot talk about the ongoing litigation, they welcome public input.


“Come to the meetings and talk to us,” Pavlik said. “We’re more than happy to listen.”



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