Officer fired after Tom Sponseller search suing former boss
COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Former Columbia Police Chief of Administration, Isa Greene, has filed a lawsuit against the city, the police department and Chief Randy Scott; nearly a year after Scott fired Greene in connection to the botched Tom Sponseller search.
Greene, who wasn't even in the state when the search for Sponseller started in Feb. 2012, claims in her suit that under Scott's reign she experienced a "hostile work environment, wage discrimination," and that Greene's firing was "retaliatory."
The former officer alleges Scott used the Sponseller case as an "excuse" to fire her after Greene said she'd started speaking out against blatant policy violations under Scott's watch. "You've just got to do what's right," Greene told WIS, "and I was always a person—if I feel it's right, I'm going to say it, even if you disagree with it and even if it's going to hurt me—I'm going to tell you the truth. Because, in the long run, we owe it to everybody: to the citizens of Columbia and the officers working there to always do what's right, and that's what I did."
It was because of that, Greene said Scott fired her.
WIS requested an on camera interview with Chief Scott, but the department declined the request. Scott's spokesperson, Jennifer Timmons, wrote in an email Monday morning, "Chief Scott does not comment on pending litigation." The department would not elaborate further or answer any other questions regarding the suit.
Isa Greene worked at the department for more than 32 years before Scott fired her last March of 2012 amid intense public scrutiny over the department's handling of the search for Tom Sponseller, the former head of the South Carolina Hospitality Association who was later found in the parking garage of his office building. Sponseller committed suicide, according to investigators.
After searching the building at least three times, police eventually found Sponseller's body inside a locked electrical closet inside a Lady Street parking garage. It took police 10 days to check the room, which was locked and Chief Randy Scott claims his officers could not find a key to unlock.
Police didn't find Sponseller's suicide note until employees of the SCHA unlocked the former director's desk drawer.
Scott also fired J.P. Smith, the former Captain of Investigations. "In this situation, I have reviewed the actions of others and have determined that it is in the best interest of the department and the City to take these personnel actions to keep us moving forward in a positive direction," said Scott in a press release last year.
Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin, who fully supported Scott's firings added, "Public trust in the Police Department must be maintained. Chief Scott has worked hard to that effect building significant and deserved goodwill throughout the community, and we cannot allow it to be squandered by the actions of a few."
The first search of Sponseller's office and the parking garage happened March 18, within hours of the lobbyist's family reporting him missing. Police usually wait 24 hours before searching for a missing person, but that did not happen in the Sponseller case.
That search, according to Greene, was led by current Deputy Chief of Operations Ruben Santiago. Santiago's crew never checked Sponseller's desk drawers for evidence and never checked the locked electrical closet, according to Chief Scott.
Santiago is still employed by the police department at a salary of $74,195.
A second search went down March 19. That search was led by Scott's second-in-charge, Chief of Staff Leslie Wiser, according to Greene. Wiser is a former federal agent who replaced Greene as head of investigations after Scott fired her.
During the Wiser search, Scott admitted his officers did not check Sponseller's desk drawers and did not find a way to unlock the electrical closet where police eventually found Sponseller. Scott explained in March that his officers were investigating a missing persons case and not a criminal case and had no authority to search Sponseller's desk drawer.
Wiser is still employed with the department at a salary of $84,658.
When Greene returned to work on Monday, March 20, Greene led another search of the parking garage, but her attorneys said she was told every room and Sponseller's desk has already been searched.
Police didn't find Sponseller until March 28, which was 10 days after he was first reported missing.
UNEQUAL TREATMENT AMONG COLUMBIA POLICE OFFICERS
Part of Greene's lawsuit deals with what she claims is differential punishment between male and female department employees. One example Greene cites deals with her punishment in the Sponseller case and the punishment handed out in the murder investigation of a University of South Carolina professor in August 2011.
The killing happened August 28 at a home on Monroe Street in Columbia. Police first responded to the home around 2:30 a.m. after neighbors called 911 to report an "argument" they could hear outside the home. Officers responded then left the scene. There was no further investigation into the 911 calls during that response.
A second 911 call came the next morning around 11 a.m. and officers went back to the home. This time, officers investigated the call and found Jennifer Lee Wilson's body inside, along with what police called, "signs of a struggle." Investigators said Wilson was stabbed multiple times and evidence showed her killer, "dragged her from room to room."
Greene, who was in charge of investigating officer conduct when the Wilson murder happened, told WIS Chief Scott never disciplined any of the officers for their handling of the Wilson case. In fact, Scott later praised the work his officers did with the case during a news conference where reporters asked the chief about the investigation of the initial call.
Despite the fact that Greene wasn't in the state during the first two days of the Sponseller search, Scott fired her for officers not finding Sponseller's body for 10 days after the search started.
SEXUAL HARASSMENT, SEXUAL DISCRIMINATION WITHIN CPD
Another part of Greene's suit alleges Scott and the city allowed a "hostile" work environment to continue at the CPD by not enforcing the city's policies against such conduct. In her suit, Greene's attorney wrote, "For a number of years, the CPD has allowed a hostile work environment to exist based upon unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, verbal and physical conduct of a lewd sexual nature, and sexual favoritism that is so severe and pervasive as to render the working conditions in the CPD psychologically intolerable for female officers."
Greene was the highest-ranking female officer in the department when Scott fired her. Just 10 days before, Scott signed off on a near-perfect performance evaluation of Isa Greene.
"Female officers were subjected to constant gender-based demeaning comments, name-calling, derogatory attitudes and lewd behavior," the suit continues, "Female officers who acquiesced to this hostile work environment and entered into relationships with male officers were given preferential treatment."
Greene cites two examples to support her claim. The first, the suit alleges, deals with a "married male corporal" who impregnated a female recruit. The corporal, Greene said, continued to train and supervise the woman. The chief, according to Greene, had direct knowledge of the situation.
The lawsuit also accuses Chief Scott of not hiring more qualified officers by interjecting himself in the hiring process of female officers he was involved with. In one case, the suit alleges, "Scott over-rode Greene's rejection of a female employee who lacked qualifications because he was having a relationship with the female employee, and as a related result, a qualified employee was not hired."
UNQUALIFIED OFFICERS IN THE CITY OF COLUMBIA
As chief of administration, Greene had a hand in the final say as to whether an applicant was fit to serve in the Columbia Police Department. Greene used a list of qualifications when determining whether she'd recommend a particular applicant for hiring.
In the suit, Greene said Chief Scott hired three officers within days of her firing—officers that she'd sent rejection letters to just days before. Part of her decision against hiring the men, according to Greene, was the fact they failed some component of the department's "psychological examinations, background checks and education" requirements.
"There were three officers I know exactly off hand that I had sent rejection letters to and the day after—two days later—within that following week, they were hired," Greene told WIS. When questioned about why the department would hire an unqualified candidate, Greene answered, "Because Chief Scott wanted them hired."
Greene said officers who do not meet the qualifications of the department are a danger to the department's mission and to officer morale.
The lawsuit was filed on Feb. 26. The city and Chief Randy Scott have 30 days to file an answer to the complaint with the court. As of this posting, neither the city, CPD nor Chief Scott have filed an answer to the allegations.
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