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Posted: 8/15/2007 5:04:51 AM EDT
Former police official argues he was fired unfairly

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 08/14/07
A former high-ranking Atlanta police official argued at a hearing Tuesday that he was unfairly fired this summer as retaliation for providing information to the media of possible police misconduct.

Joe Spillane, a 19-year department veteran, faced off with Police Chief Richard Pennington during a four-hour hearing before the Civil Service Board. Spillane claimed he is the victim of a vendetta that has nothing to do with his job performance, which police officials concede hadbeen stellar for just under two decades.

Spillane got off to a strong start as the valedictorian of his police-academy class in 1988 and continued to thrive in a number of assignments, eventually earning the rank of major in charge of the Buckhead zone. But when his former supervisor, then-Maj. John Woodard, became the target of a federal corruption investigation, Spillane got swept up in the inquiry, which he believes unfairly ruined his career. Woodard and his wife were convicted in 2004 of a scheme to charge people to reclaim their confiscated cash from the police property room.

Spillane's attorney, Bill McKenney, told the civil service board Tuesday that a federal prosecutor investigating Woodard complained to the police chief that he didn't feel Spillane was telling everything he knew. The chief put Spillane on administrative leave for four months and eventually demoted him to a lieutenant in 2005.

Spillane, who was among several officers investigated by federal and Atlanta police but never charged, believed he had been wronged but said he tried to make the best of his new assignment, overseeing the training academy's professional-development unit.

Maj. Damian Finch, a longtime friend of Spillane's, testified Tuesday that Spillane made great improvements at the academy.

So why was Spillane fired?

Pennington told the board Spillane lied during a 2005 internal-affairs investigation by claiming he drove alone to meet with Woodard's criminal defense attorney, who wanted to ask him some questions while preparing for Woodard's 2004 trial. Finch told investigators that he rode with Spillane, waiting in the car, because the two were going to have lunch afterward.

There wasn't a police policy barring Finch and Spillane, who were friends, from riding together or having lunch, but the chief said Spillane shouldn't have lied about it.

Spillane's attorney asked why it was relevant, but the chief only responded by saying that the lie violated his no-tolerance policy on lying.

Attorney Chuck Taylor, who chaired the three-member board, asked the police chief why the case against Spillane took so long. Spillane was interviewed by internal affairs in 2005, but not fired until this summer: "Why the two-year delay?"

The chief responded: "Because the case was being investigated and it wasn't moving fast enough."

Spillane believes he was unfairly blamed for leaking a story to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in May about how some officers were lying to justify taking department-owned cars home for the night. The chief denied a link between the story and Spillane's firing in June.

The civil-service board, which has the power to reinstate a city employee's job, could decide in a couple of weeks whether Spillane can go back to work.

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