John Stacey chose to retire this week as Bellevue's police chief because he sensed that a prolonged personnel investigation was in the works and that the city would eventually remove him from his position, his lawyers said Thursday.
Attorneys Ed Pohren and James Martin Davis met with reporters to discuss Stacey's decision Wednesday to retire as chief of police and as a volunteer firefighter, effective Friday.
Stacey didn't attend the press conference, on his attorneys' advice, because Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov has charged Stacey and former Gretna City Administrator Colleen Lawry each with a misdemeanor after Stacey provided her with a handgun several months ago.
Pohren confirmed that the city initially investigated Stacey for making an inappropriate remark to a 12-year-old girl April 30, in the presence of a half-dozen people at the Bellevue Fire Department.
Davis said city officials sought to impose a 30-day unpaid suspension on Stacey in connection with the incident.
The attorneys said city officials also planned to pursue additional disciplinary measures, possibly termination, in connection with the handgun case pending in Sarpy County Court.
“It was pretty apparent that the City of Bellevue was going to come up with whatever excuse it could to fire John,” Davis said. “The end result is that John retired because he knew they, in effect, were out to get him. The tide had turned against him.”
City Council President Scott Houghtaling rejected that contention.
“We did a thorough investigation, and John chose to resign on his own terms.
The city did not force John to resign,” Houghtaling said. “We were not out to get John. We were just investigating the situation that came before us.”
Pohren said Stacey's remark to the girl at the fire station didn't warrant a weeks-long investigation or a 30-day suspension, which he called a serious disciplinary action.
He said the girl was in the process of getting braces and that Stacey, in a lighthearted gesture to make the girl feel comfortable, told her, “Make sure you service your boyfriends before you get your braces on.”
Pohren said Stacey later clarified his comment, saying, “I meant kissing.”
Stacey made the remark in front of other firefighters, including the girl's father, a longtime Stacey friend.
Pohren suggested it was illogical for anyone to think Stacey's comment was meant as a “sexual remark or carried any innuendos,” with the girl's father “standing right next to him.”
The two men went on rescue calls together over their 15 years with the department, Pohren said. “You are not going to break that bond and trust,” Pohren said.
The attorneys said city officials did not provide them with any specific allegations against Stacey beyond the comment at the Fire Department and the handgun case.
Davis contended that the city officials' motivation might have stemmed from his relationship with Lawry, a relationship Stacey has declined to discuss.
As The World-Herald reported last month, Stacey and Lawry used public funds on four out-of-town trips to the same cities. Stacey said he was attending police and fire conferences, while Lawry said she was doing economic development research.
Authorities have said Stacey's travel expenses appeared legitimate. Gretna officials have said they were unable to verify explanations provided by Lawry, who has been fired for unrelated inappropriate use of city funds.
In the end, Stacey “did not feel he could effectively lead that department,” Davis said.
Pohren said Bellevue used the fire department comment to discipline Stacey and planned to use the gun charge to seek his termination. Additionally, the city would likely have investigated other allegations to secure Stacey's ouster, the lawyers said.
Houghtaling said he asked City Administrator Dan Berlowitz to investigate a few other matters involving Stacey, in addition to the incident at the Fire Department. Houghtaling declined to say what they were.
“This is not the result John Stacey wanted, but he felt he had to do something,” Davis said. “There was no question in all our minds that they (Bellevue officials) would use the gun charge to fire him. There was an agenda to get rid of John Stacey.”
Davis said Stacey did not want to face a lengthy and public disciplinary appeal, in the hopes of keeping his job, while at the same time fighting to be acquitted on the gun charge, Davis said.
“It's a shame,” Davis said, “but he's caught up in a political whirlwind. We all know what tornadoes can do.”
“He is a person of strong character,” Pohren said of Stacey.
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