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Somerset mayor investigated over political rewards

SOMERSET — The FBI and state police have investigated the "political rewards systems" Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler used after winning office in 2006, according to a motion in a federal lawsuit.

Six police officers claim in the employment lawsuit that after Girdler won by 41 votes, he retaliated against them because they had supported his opponent, incumbent J.P. Wiles.

At the same time, Girdler gave raises and promotions to several officers who had supported him, the lawsuit says.

Attorneys for Girdler argue he acted within his authority in making police personnel decisions and did not illegally retaliate against any officer.

In a deposition in the case, former city police Chief David Biggerstaff said officers from the FBI and state police asked him questions about the 2006 election. That was after Biggerstaff resigned as chief in late December 2006, shortly before Girdler took office.

Girdler told him he planned to punish officers who worked against him and reward those who had helped him, Biggerstaff said.

Biggerstaff said he thought the things Girdler described were illegal, citing the state law against promising something of value for a vote. He quit rather than be part of it, Biggerstaff said.

"He was — he was unbelievably bold in this comments, and I was shocked," Biggerstaff, a retired state police officer, said in his sworn statement.

The deposition did not provide details of the investigation, but a motion in the officers' lawsuit described it as an inquiry into Girdler's political rewards system.

Girdler said Tuesday that he has not been contacted by any investigators. He did nothing wrong in the 2006 election or in personnel decisions afterward, Girdler said.

"All of it's just baseless," he said.

Carrie Wiese, the city attorney, said the information about an investigation of Girdler came up in depositions in the officers' lawsuit this year and "was news to all of us."

Girdler has not been charged with anything.

There have been rumors in Somerset about the investigation for months, but the court case is the first public confirmation.

An FBI spokesman did not return a call seeking information about the status of the investigation.

Attorneys in the case declined to discuss whether Girdler is the subject of a criminal inquiry. A judge has ordered some information in the case sealed.

However, attorneys for the six officers included a reference to the inquiry — but no detail — in a motion arguing that police administrators close to Girdler harassed officers because of damaging information emerging in depositions the last several months.

For instance, witnesses said Girdler may have abused overtime funds to reward political supporters and may have given inappropriate raises to firefighters who backed him, the motion said.

The revelation about the federal investigation was cited as another example.

After Girdler learned what information was surfacing, he issued a letter telling city employees not to discuss anything with anyone but him, according to the court motion for the six officers.

The officers are suing Girdler individually and as mayor. They are also suing the city of Somerset.

In the lawsuit, the officers argue Girdler or police supervisors close to him retaliated against them in a variety of ways, including deactivating an emergency response team several were on; demoting one from acting police chief and forcing another to step down as assistant chief; giving promotions to others; moving the offices of several into a janitorial closet; and subjecting them to extra scrutiny and threat of firing.

Attorneys for Girdler and the city argue the officers haven't shown they lost any chances to advance; that the personnel actions the mayor took were appropriate and didn't violate the officers' rights; and that Girdler didn't act on the basis of politics.

U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves earlier dismissed several claims in the officers' suit.

The sole remaining issue is whether Girdler violated the officers' right to free speech by retaliating against them on the basis of politics.

Girdler's term as mayor has been controversial. In addition to the officers' lawsuit, he has clashed often with members of the city council.

Council members sued Girdler after he'd been in office less than two months, claiming he improperly bypassed the council on city business and broke the law.