Fired West U. Officer Also Sued By City Over Unemployment Benefits

November 11, 2009

A West U. officer fired last year for allegedly lying about getting hit by a car while directing traffic is now involved in a lawsuit with the city of West University Place over unemployment benefits.

The lawsuit and records from Rosemarie Valdes’ appeal hearing, which InstantNewsWestU requested under the Texas Public Information Act, provide a window into the former officer’s side of the story and raise questions about the department’s actions.

Arguments by Valdes’ defense attorney show she may have actually been hit and injured as she described, but the West U. Police Department says she provided “gross exaggerations of the truth,” according to the appeal hearing documents.

The city of West University Place is now embroiled in a civil lawsuit against Valdes and the Texas Workforce Commission because the agency awarded the former officer with unemployment benefits after rejecting the city’s determination that she was fired for workplace misconduct.

“We are adamantly stating this didn’t occur. This is a lynching of her,” said David Donahue, legal administrator for Valdes’ attorney Paul Aman. “We’ve known Rosemarie Valdes. She’s an excellent officer.”

But the records show that the Oct. 20, 2007 incident that eventually lead to the officer’s termination was not the first time she had been in trouble with the department. Still, two other agencies have failed to fully accept the department’s version of events.

Valdes is still appealing with one more agency to try to remove the “dishonorable discharge” from her record.

The accident

Valdes reported that on Oct. 20, 2007 she was directing traffic in the 4200 block of Bellaire Boulevard because ahead on the road, police were drawing their guns to pull over a stolen car, which would be dangerous if the driver had a gun.

She said that while she was turned to watch the traffic stop, a car hit her in the back of the left knee. When reporting the incident, Valdes said the car knocked her off balance and she fell backwards onto the hood of the car.

When Valdes’ supervisors reviewed in-car video footage to try to locate the vehicle that hit her, they said the video showed the officer’s description of the accident was inaccurate. Read more here.

Just last month, the West U. Police Department fired another officer after in-car video footage allegedly showed that things the officer wrote in offense reports had not happened. Nelson Hernandez is now facing two felony charges of tampering with a governmental record. Read more here.

The department fired Valdes about a year after the alleged accident, after completing an internal affairs investigation that had been put on hold because the officer was injured in an unrelated on-the-job traffic accident.

Contested evidence

InstantNewsWestU viewed the footage from the Valdes accident, and because the video is blurry and grainy and Valdes stands a long distance away, it’s difficult to tell definitively whether the car hit the officer. But it is clear her feet stayed on the ground the entire time. Watch the video yourself here.

The poor video quality makes the evidence “useless,” Valdes said in her appeal.

“Officer Carson’s in-car video blown up to 400% in my personal and professional opinion is useless and/or at the best inconclusive,” Valdes wrote. “I again reaffirm my personal and professional opinion that Officer Carson’s in-car video at normal enhancement supports my statements given throughout this accident/incident/investigation.”

In her defense during the appeal hearing, Valdes’ attorney Paul Aman highlighted the ambiguity and questioned the expertise of a man who processed and examined the footage. The man, a superintendent in the San Antonio branch of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, came to the conclusion that what Valdes had reported didn’t appear to happen.

“Her entire career hangs on this, how certain we are,” according to Aman in a transcript of the appeal hearing. “And what does he say? ‘It appears that the officer’ — he doesn’t say ‘The officer is doing this.'”

Aman also highlighted medical evidence that showed Valdes allegedly had a real injury to her left knee. Over the course of two months following the accident, she received X-rays, MRI tests, used a knee brace and went to physical therapy twice per week.

“And it says in the report: Diagnosis, a provisional diagnosis of left knee and leg sprain,” Aman said in the transcript. “So, following this alleged accident, you went to doctors who found that you had a real injury; is that fair?”

“Yes, sir,” Valdes answered during the hearing.

Valdes’ termination

The reason the department fired Valdes is because after the accident, she allegedly reported the car had knocked her off balance, and she fell on the hood with her feet coming off the ground. The video clearly shows that didn’t happen.

“It is important to point out, the Department has not claimed that Valdes didn’t injure her knee — only that it did not happen in the manner she described to the Department,” West U. Police Chief Walker wrote in a letter to City Manager Michael Ross after the appeal hearing.

Valdes stuck with her version of events in multiple interviews, a sworn affidavit and in an in-person demonstration that was recorded on video without her knowledge. The department contends that in all these accounts the officer lied or exaggerated about being thrown onto the hood of the car.

Walker has said previously that he doesn’t tolerate dishonesty and he must be comfortable that West U. officers always tell the complete truth in order to trust them when they must testify in court.

Donahue said Valdes’ multiple accounts of the accident were true, and the department tried to blow the story out of proportion.

“Why would she lie about something like this?” Donahue said. “She’s not claiming that the car ran over her. She even made statements I turned my back, directing traffic around this felony stop, and this little old lady creeping along kind of scooped her feet out from under her.”

Valdes said in her appeal letter that Walker’s reasons for firing her was a “pretext.”

“I have been informed over a period of time by unidentified sources that Chief Walker and LT. Olive have made discriminatory side comments that they do not approve of my personal life choices, and that they wanted to get rid of me for those reasons,” Valdes wrote. “I was also told to watch my back and that I had better leave the department before they trumped-up a reason to get rid of me.”

Donahue refused to comment about what “personal life choices” Valdes referred to in her appeal.

Walker refuted Valdes’ accusation in his letter to Ross on Dec. 8, 2008.

“Valdes termination was based solely on her repeated misrepresentation of facts,” Walker wrote. “Her ‘personal life style choices outside the department’ had no bearing on this investigation or the decision to terminate her employment.”

Ross sided with Walker after the appeal hearing and held up Valdes’ termination.

“I had gone over it in great detail. I had watched the DVD multiple times at multiple angles and zoom, the cameras provided,” Ross said. “There was nothing presented by the defense that provided any reason for me to change the action on the table.”

Previous record of complaints

Walker’s letter to Ross also reveals that Valdes had come under much scrutiny during her eight years as a West U. police officer. From 2000 through 2008, she received 16 complaints investigated by the Internal Affairs Department. Among 35 employees during that time, there were a total of 40 such complaints.

“If the Department had been trying to ‘trump-up’ a reason to terminate her, the Department had ample opportunity,” Walker wrote. “With her sixteen complaints, Valdes is the subject of 40% of the total complaints during this time.”

Donahue said he doesn’t know what all the complaints were about, but he thinks it could have to do with Valdes’ “old school” way of communicating. For example, she would confront people if she saw them doing something stupid.

“She’d walk up to them and say ‘What is your malfunction?'” Donahue said. “We said ‘Rosemarie, you can’t say that to people. It’s not politically correct.'”

Walker’s letter to Ross said one of the complaints against Valdes was about sexual harassment. Another city employee “alleged that Valdes had inappropriately touched her,” Walker wrote.

For another complaint, Valdes was suspended for one day without pay because she failed to follow orders, submit a report, neglected her duty and other offenses. Walker wrote that they were “serious infractions.”

Other agencies reject department’s charges

The West U. Police Department tried to file criminal charges against Valdes for aggravated perjury, making a false report to a peace officer, falsifying a government document and insurance fraud. But the Harris County District Attorney’s office rejected the charges.

George Flynn, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, said he couldn’t comment specifically on why they rejected the charges.

“There are lots of situations where an employee, public or private, may violate the rules and regulations of their employer, and be terminated for it. But, you know, those don’t necessarily rise to a level of a criminal offense,” Flynn said. “The DA’s office only deals, obviously, with the question of whether there were criminal offenses committed.”

Donahue said he thought the district attorney’s office rejected the charges because “they’re bullshit.”

The city is now suing Valdes and the Texas Workforce Commission because that agency rejected the department’s determination that Valdes was fired for workplace misconduct.

According to the lawsuit, Valdes applied for unemployment benefits right after she was fired in October 2008, and TWC approved her payments. The city appealed that decision in November 2008 because it said Valdes was fired for workplace misconduct, making her ineligible for unemployment benefits. The TWC reversed its decision and took away the officer’s benefits.

But Valdes re-appealed in January 2009, and in March the TWC again reversed its decision and gave her the benefits. The city tried to appeal again, but the TWC denied the request.

A TWC spokeswoman did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Now the city is asking the Harris County 157th Judicial District Court to review the TWC’s decision. The lawsuit says the city fired Valdes because she allegedly violated a police department rule “requiring integrity and truthfulness.”

“Valdes’ actions in providing false and/or exaggerated statements to her employer concerning an on-the-job incident constituted misconduct,” the lawsuit said. “The Commission’s decision to the contrary was made without regard to the law or the facts and should be reversed.”

Both Valdes and the TWC filed answers with the court that deny the city’s allegations. The court is scheduled to hear the case in May 2010.

In the meantime Valdes and her attorney are trying to appeal to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officers Standards, an agency that certifies police officers and departments. They want the agency to remove the “dishonorable discharge” from Valdes’ record. The “dishonorable” designation hurts Valdes’ chance of continuing her career in law enforcement.

“She could continue it now, but her chances of being employed by another agency are going to be very slim because of what is stated on the F-5,” Donahue said about the official form that reported her termination. “Other departments are going to go ‘Oh my god, we can’t trust this woman.'”

InstantNewsWestu Staff

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