Two Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago cops who were canned after they were recorded using racial slurs and talking about sleeping on the job claim their firing violated their constitutional rights.
Denis Lawlor was overheard giving rookie MWRD cop Daniel Varallo an unorthodox orientation to life on the job at the floodwater control agency’s Stickney plant in 2015, including the location of a secret room where officers kept a beer fridge, and calling another officer a “stupid Alabama hill n—–.”
Little did Lawlor and Varallo know that Lawlor’s radio microphone was on, broadcasting their conversation on a bandwidth used by the state police for nearly an hour. After an investigation by the MWRD, Varallo was fired that July and Lawlor was axed in November, after a lengthy battle to keep his $100,000-per-year job.
Monday, the pair filed a federal lawsuit against the MWRD, ISP and radio manufacturer Motorola, claiming their conversation was illegally recorded because of a technical glitch, and that the subsequent MWRD and ISP investigations that got them fired violated their rights to free speech and against illegal search.
“They left the officers to hang out and dry,” said John Downey, one of Lawlor’s attorneys. “Their conversations have every right to be protected just like private conversations in their own home. Nobody’s private conversations should be aired in public.”
Lawlor is also represented by attorney Michael Ettinger.
A spokesperson for the MWRD did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The lawsuit seeks attorney fees and punitive damages, but Downey declined to say what amount would be just compensation for his employees.
Lawlor and Varallo claim that the MWRD and Motorola both were aware of “open key” problems with the MWRD radios that caused them to remain on and broadcast onto a ISP frequency, but did not fix the glitch despite 21 similar open mic incidents just in December 2014.
The pair also claims that ISP officers who listened in and recorded their conversation violated their free speech rights, as well as state and federal eavesdropping laws. The suit also notes the MWRD had declined to use similar recordings that had been made improperly in disciplinary cases involving at least one other district employee. Downey also noted that much of the two officers’ conversation was related to union issues that employers also are not allowed to record or use in disciplinary action against workers.
The lawsuit names a half-dozen MWRD and ISP employees, as well as the MWRD, State Police and Motorola as defendants.