Sister Revives Officer's Suit Against City

Claim for distress might clear his name

Karen Scholz
Plain Dealer Reporter
August 20, 2001

Lt. Jeffrey Zappala spent three months trying in vain to get back about $200 taken in error from his Cleveland Police Department paycheck.

But, he said, he never got so frustrated that he lost his temper or used a racial slur during an August 1998 phone call to City Hall, as a staff member from the mayors office claimed. Zappala insistently denied the staffers claims in a statement to internal investigators who questioned him about alleged comments at the time.

An investigation into the alleged comments led to Zappala being suspended for 10 days, a decision that was later overturned. But that didn't take away the sting. After he was vindicated, Zappala sued Mayor Michael R. White and his staff, claiming they caused him unbearable distress.

Zappala wont see how his lawsuit turns out. He shot himself in October. The suit was dismissed because of the death. But Zappalas sister, Anita, re-filed it earlier this summer as the administrator for his estate.

Jeff spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy defending himself, said her attorney, Craig Bashein, who filed the original suit. His family felt strongly that they needed to carry on in an effort to completely clear his name.

Anita Zappala declined to be interviewed. Bashein would not discuss Zappalas death. Zappala did not leave a suicide note.

During a deposition in May 2000, White denied that he tried to influence the investigation.

I don't know the man, White said. Hes not exactly on my dance card.

The mayor also complained that the lawsuit was unfair.

I don't think somebody using such vulgar language in my office is fair to be suing me for, or the city of Cleveland, he said.

In 1998, Zappala was a highly decorated police veteran of 16 years assigned to the 6th District on Clevelands far East Side. To prepare for retirement, he had been buying extra military time to increase the amount of his pension. He served two years with the Marines during the Vietnam War.

But the withdrawals from his paychecks didn't stop when they were supposed to in May 1998 and he was overcharged $201.51. He talked to city payroll employees about getting a refund, but they told him he would have to wait for a letter from pension officials in Columbus.

Despite several more calls in June and July, he never got the refund.

On Aug. 6 Zappala called City Hall and asked to speak with a payroll supervisor. Inexplicably, he was transferred to the Mayors Action Center, which handles complaints about snow and trash removal and potholes.

The Action Centers manager, Wendy McDonald-Hunter, tried to help him, and after checking, told him he needed the letter from pension officials.

There is no dispute that McDonald-Hunter hung up on him twice, prompting Zappala to contact a secretary in Whites office to complain. He said later that he wanted to let McDonald-Hunters supervisors know that she had been unprofessional. In response, McDonald-Hunter told her bosses that Zappala had cursed at her and threatened to sue. She also said that he made a derogatory comment about the work ethic of black people.

He was bellowing at the top of his lungs that I wasn't doing my job, McDonald-Hunter said later, according to records.

Zappala denied all of McDonald-Hunters allegations.

Either Wendy McDonald-Hunter made the whole thing up, or Im some kind of moron who's going to call up during working hours on lines I believe to be taped and say these things, Zappala said later.

But the line wasn't taped. An investigation started after Whites executive assistant, Barry Withers, gave McDonald-Hunter a complaint form to complete.

He said that if Lt. Zappala was going to file a complaint against me, I had to file my own statement, McDonald-Hunter said.

Within a few weeks, White and Withers both sent memos to Rocco Pollutro, then the city's police chief. White asked to be advised as to the manner in which you are going about an investigation.

Withers wrote that if the allegations were true, discipline would be in order. Withers sent copies of his memo to Whites chief of staff and to William Denihan, the safety director at the time.

In court records, Bashein said the memos show that the White administration tried to influence the investigation. In this case, only Pollutro had the authority to discipline Zappala.

When Pollutro got that memo from Mayor White, he knew what he was going to do, said Zappala said.

Zappala asked investigators to give him a lie-detector test. When they refused, he said he paid to have a test done and passed it, but the results were not included in the investigation.

While the allegation about the racial remark was not proven, Pollutro suspended Zappala for 10 days for rudeness. An arbitrator later ruled that the suspension was unwarranted and ordered the city to remove it from Zappalas record and to reimburse him for lost wages.

Zappala stated in court records that he believed he was doomed even after the arbitrator cleared his name. He said co-workers treated him differently and that some were calling him a racist.

It is the looks that hurt, Zappala said in a deposition.

He thought his chances for promotion had slipped away.

He said he stopped sleeping and his hair fell out.

Sometimes, he said in his statement, I want to cry.

W. Craig Bashein
Bashein & Bashein
August 20, 2001