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City opts to settle lawsuit with police helicopter pilot

Baltimore’s spending panel is scheduled to vote Wednesday on a $245,000 settlement for a decorated helicopter pilot who says he was ostracized and tricked into resigning from the city police department after he wrote a letter about deficiencies and waste in its aviation unit.

If approved by the Board of Estimates, the settlement would resolve Samuel K. Miller’s lawsuit for $10 million in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

Miller claimed retaliation by the Baltimore Police Department for a private letter he had written in 2006 to Col. Michael Andrew, who was performing a review of the aviation unit after an anonymous complaint.

According to the suit, Miller told Andrew of safety and training shortcomings, unit supervisors who “come and go without accountability” and unnecessary flights.

Miller said his superiors responded with unjustified discipline and an “unrelenting attack” on his “honesty, integrity and willingness to accept direction/orders from his superiors.”

A call to Miller’s attorney, Howard B. Hoffman, was not returned by press time. An email from the Baltimore Police Department referred all questions to the Baltimore City Law Department.

City Solicitor George A. Nilson characterized Hoffman, who formerly worked in the Law Department, as an “aggressive” attorney and said one reason the proposed settlement is high is because the suit is in federal court.

“In federal court, had the plaintiff prevailed in any reasonable way, he would have gotten attorneys’ fees…,” Nilson said. “So that sort of adds to the cost of settling the case.”

The suit was filed on Feb. 1, 2010.

According to the complaint, Miller, formerly a pilot with the Maricopa County (Ariz.) Sheriff’s Department, was hired by the Baltimore police in 2001. He was awarded a bronze star for valor in 2004.

But his relationship with the department soured in 2006, after his letter to Andrew.

Sgt. Thomas Poffenbarger, the unit commander, got a copy of the letter, which according to the suit included details of a “dog and pony” helicopter landing at the Baltimore County school Poffenbarger’s children attended. After that, Poffenbarger engaged in a campaign to discredit Miller, the suit says.

Miller alleged the retaliation continued after Lt. Carl H. Crenshaw III, another defendant, took over the aviation unit in late 2006.

According to Miller, what followed were poor performance reviews, accusations of slandering the unit and a reassignment to foot patrol on the Inner Harbor, with an accompanying pay cut.

Nilson said the reassignment was possibly the suit’s most serious allegation.

“Certainly for somebody who was a trained helicopter pilot, that could be regarded as a demotion,” he said.

Miller protested the transfer, but Crenshaw allegedly instructed a sergeant to tell Miller he had no right to a transfer hearing.

Meanwhile, Poffenbarger allegedly filed internal affairs charges against Miller that warned that Miller “was capable of going to the news media concerning the Aviation Unit.”

The suit states that Miller was tricked into resigning in 2007 when Fraternal Order of Police President Paul Blair told him the internal affairs charges would be dropped if he did so.

“Plaintiff could not have understood the choice that he was being given, when the information was false and intended to deceive him,” the amended complaint states. “It was all part of a scheme that Defendants Poffenbarger and Crenshaw devised in order to deliberately harm the plaintiff and his career.”

Former Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm, current Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III and four other defendants were sued in addition to Poffenbarger and Crenshaw. The suit, which included counts for abusive discharge, state and federal constitutional violations and supervisory liability, sought $5 million in compensatory damages and an equal amount in punitive damages.

The complaint points out that two years after Miller resigned, the aviation unit came under heavy scrutiny for participating in Del. Jon Cardin’s marriage proposal.

Nilson said Miller, who now lives in Pennsylvania, has found other employment.

“I don’t think Officer Miller asked for reinstatement,” he said. “I know that’s not part of the settlement.”

Last month the Board of Estimates approved a $9.49 million purchase of new helicopters for the aviation unit.

Broken arm

Also on the agenda for tomorrow’s Board of Estimates meeting is a $45,000 settlement for Rodney Hueston. Hueston, 31, filed suit Aug. 4, 2010 against officers Anthony S. Weems and Renard D. Owens, alleging that they broke his arm when they arrested him outside Crazy Johns restaurant on Oct. 20, 2009.

Hueston alleged that Owens told him to move his car after he parked next to a fire hydrant. The suit states that Hueston complied, but when he entered the restaurant, Owens slammed him against the counter and said, “Didn’t we tell you to move your car?” Owens and Weems then allegedly handcuffed Hueston, took him outside and slammed him against their patrol car. When Hueston protested, the suit says, the officers threw him to the ground, fracturing his left humerus.

Hueston was treated at Maryland General Hospital, the suit states, then charged with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and possession of an open container of alcohol. All charges were dropped.

Nilson said the amount of Hueston’s proposed settlement was “noticeable” because he had sustained a broken bone as opposed to soft tissue injuries.