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Ex-mayors added as defendants in abuse lawsuit

A federal judge has reinstated former city officials, including several ex-mayors, as defendants in a lawsuit filed by people who say they were abused by the founder of a Lexington youth program.

In an order filed Friday, U.S. District Judge William O. Bertelsman scheduled a trial for Jan. 12, 2010 in the lawsuit arising out of the alleged sexual abuse by Ron Berry, who operated the now-defunct Micro-City Government program for disadvantaged youths. Many of the youths in the program were African-American.

Bertelsman notes in his order that "the fact that there is evidence that inaction on the part of Lexington Fayette Urban County Government officials was motivated by a desire to capture the vote of the black community brings race sufficiently into play to create a jury question on these claims."

Susan Straub, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Newberry, declined to comment Monday.

The former officials reinstated as defendants include former mayors H. Foster Pettit, James Amato, Scotty Baesler and Pam Miller. Also reinstated are former police chiefs John McFadden and Larry Walsh.

Baesler had no comment Monday, and Miller and Amato could not be immediately reached. Pettit, contacted at home, said, "I can't believe it."

In June 2007, Bertelsman had dismissed those officials as defendants, saying that complaints against them were barred by the statute of limitations.

But Bertelsman was asked to reconsider that 2007 decision, and "he has reopened the claims" against those officials, said James Morris, an attorney who represents several of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that was filed in 1998. "All the defendants who were in the original lawsuits are back in."

The fact that the judge has set a trial date "is a huge issue," Morris said, because the city had sought "to have it all dismissed, saying we couldn't prove a cause of action.

"But the judge ruled that there is sufficient evidence of a concerted pattern of violating our clients' rights," he said.

And Morris said Bertelsman found that there is sufficient evidence that Urban County Government officials "conspired to deprive someone of their rights due to their race," making that an issue at trial.

Former city employees have testified under oath, Morris said, "that they went to different mayors and said 'This man (Berry) is molesting little boys. He does not need to be involved in any kind of youth programs, and we've got to shut down our funding of this organization.' And the response that at least one of them got was 'it's not politically sustainable because he (Berry) delivers the black vote and that's something that we need.'"

As an example of that type of testimony, Morris cited a sworn deposition given by Carol Wigginton, the city's former commissioner of social services, that was publicly released in 2002.

"For 11 years, the city has never, ever addressed the factual allegations of this case. Now, finally, there's a jury trial set, and that means they have to address the facts," Morris said.

The fact that the Urban County Government "has to come through and defend its actions on the merits is a substantial, substantial victory."

The officials reinstated in the suit could still file a motion for summary judgment on the grounds of some type of governmental immunity, meaning they were engaging within the scope of their duties. They have until Aug. 4 to file such motions.

The 1998 lawsuit alleged that the city of Lexington continued to fund Micro-City Government program even though officials knew that Berry was sexually and physically abusing children in the program. Berry started Micro-City in 1969 to introduce disadvantaged youths to public service.

Berry was convicted in 2000 of 12 counts of third-degree sodomy of a victim younger than 16. He completed a three-year sentence in 2005.

The city settled two other suits related to the Berry case for a total of $2.85 million. One payout in 2002 was to 17 former plaintiffs for a total of $2.4 million, one of the largest payouts in the city's history.

Other class-action lawsuits followed but were dismissed.

In May 2005, a U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel overturned a lower court's decision to dismiss the 1998 suit brought by participants in Berry's program.

The panel decided that the class-action lawsuit, filed by 95 plaintiffs, was not properly dismissed. The panel said other possible parties in the class action should have been notified before the case was dismissed, and the case was reopened.