After nine hours of mediation Monday, resigned Portsmouth police officer John Connors agreed to drop a federal lawsuit against the city and former police officials in exchange for a $330,000 payment from the city’s liability insurance provider.
Connors filed the federal lawsuit in July 2015, against former chief Stephen DuBois, former police commissioners “Jerry” Howe and John Golumb, as well as the city. His suit noted he was accused of malfeasance, insubordination and violating the Police Department’s media policy for giving an August 2014 interview to the Portsmouth Herald about often seeing police Sgt. Aaron Goodwin at the home of his elderly and wealthy neighbor Geraldine Webber. Goodwin was named the largest beneficiary of Webber’s $2 million estate, but Judge Gary Casavechia later overturned the inheritance, while ruling Goodwin had exerted undue influence over Webber, who had dementia.
Connors’ lawyer Paul McEachern announced the settlement agreement Tuesday morning and said, “John feels vindicated.”
“It’s been a long time for him to be in the shadows of that command that he not talk about the Webber matter,” McEachern said. “It’s over now and he can get his life back together, to the extent that it was disrupted by this.”
McEachern said he and Connors were “very confident” that if the case went to trial, “We would have prevailed.” The settlement, he said, allows Connors and his wife Diane to move on with their lives.
“They did the right thing,” McEachern said.
He said Connors was “courageous” for giving the Portsmouth Herald interview, after he had told police officials about Goodwin’s frequent visits to Webber, often in a police cruiser. Connors was the now-deceased elderly woman’s next-door neighbor and said, “I wasn’t being nosy. I was watching a crime, as far as I was concerned.”
Connors resigned in September 2015, saying he did so to regain his right to free speech. A 42-year member of the Police Department before his resignation, Connors filed the lawsuit alleging his First Amendment rights were breached when he was reprimanded for giving the Herald interview about the case.
McEachern said Tuesday that the interview came at a time when the city was poised to settle a dispute over Webber’s estate out of court with a $425,000 payment to Goodwin. The proposed deal would have also diminished inheritances to the city Police and Fire Departments.
The Police Commission unanimously rejected the proposed deal after 11 members of the public spoke against it.
“If John hadn’t blown the whistle, that settlement would have gone forward,” McEachern said. “The skids were greased. It was a courageous act for him.”
McEachern also noted Connors was the 2015 recipientof the Nackey S. Loeb First Amendment Award for “for speaking out when he suspected wrongdoing, only to be disciplined himself,” according to David Tirrell-Wysocki, executive director of the nonprofit school. McEachern said that award bestowed recognition “beyond Portsmouth for what he did.”
“In Portsmouth, he has not been fully recognized for all he did,” said Connors’ lawyer. “Maybe in time that will change.”
Police Chief Robert Merner said about the settlement with Connors, “We’re going to continue to move this department forward.”
McEachern on Tuesday also commended Webber’s friend Barbara Wardwell for rejecting the proposed settlement agreement in Aug. 2014, knowing it would make her own small inheritance from Webber even smaller.
“At a critical stage, she could have got the full amount of her settlement, but she turned it down,” he said. “When it comes right down to it, John Connors and Barbara Wardwell were responsible for the change of the command staff at the Police Department and I think that’s a blessing for the community.”