Jury rejects Minneapolis sergeant's claim of retaliation

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 22, 2008 - 11:52 PM

After a four-day trial, the jury didn't agree that Giovanni Veliz was passed over for a promotion because he had filed complaints with the Civil Rights Department.

A federal jury Wednesday rejected a Minneapolis police sergeant's claim that he had been passed over for a prestigious job on the Gang Strike Force because he had filed complaints with the city's Civil Rights Department.

Many on the eight-member jury were leaning against Sgt. Giovanni Veliz at the start of deliberations, juror Paul Kelly said. It was hard to say if there was retaliation against the sergeant, he said.

"But that wasn't the deciding factor for me," he said. "Veliz wouldn't have been picked for the job no matter what."

In a statement issued after the verdict, the city attorney's office said the transfer decision challenged by Veliz was made in a fair and impartial manner, based on the requirements of the particular position.

"I don't think anybody wins in these types of trials. It's tough on everybody," Chief Tim Dolan said. "I think what gets lost is the good work we are doing in diversifying the department."

Veliz's legal team was visibly upset when the jury returned its decision after nearly six hours of deliberation.

Veliz, 44, claimed that the Police Department had ignored his complaints about how officers treated Hispanic residents and filed two complaints with the Civil Rights Department in October 2005. Two months later he was denied a transfer to the state Gang Strike Force.

Veliz challenged that decision as retaliatory and later sued the Police Department.

Type of experience

The city argued that the candidate chosen, Sgt. Jeff Jindra, had more supervisory experience and gang expertise than Veliz and the other sergeants who applied.

Assistant Chief Sharon Lubinski, Inspector Mike Martin and Lt. Andy Smith, the panel that selected Jindra, said they didn't know Veliz had filed charges and hadn't seen any news media coverage about it.

The four-day trial included testimony from nearly all the Police Department's top officers, including Dolan. For department critics, a victory for Veliz would have meant validation of long-held allegations of institutional discrimination and cronyism.

Veliz wasn't in the St. Paul courtroom when the verdict was read by U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle. Earlier in the day, several friends stopped by to offer support.

"Whatever the jury decides, Gio is going to be a marked man," said Juan Lopez, a former Hennepin County juvenile probation division law enforcer. "This would happen any time you stand up to the brass. Unfortunately, it came to this."

During her closing statement, Assistant City Attorney C. Lynne Fundingsland agreed that Veliz is a well-respected member of the department and that "this trial wasn't about trying to downplay his expertise or contributions."

When referring to the three officers who chose Jindra, she asked the jury if "these look like the kind of people who would commit perjury."

Discrimination complaints

Earlier in the trial, former Minneapolis Police Chief Bill McManus said it would be "unbelievable" that his command staff, which included Lubinski and Martin, wouldn't know about the discrimination complaints because of the extensive media coverage.

Most officers in the department had heard about it, he said.

Fundingsland questioned the validity of the Civil Rights Department finding probable cause in 2007 that the city's decision to give the job to Jindra was retaliatory.

She said Veliz was contacted during the department's investigation nearly every week, but Lubinski was the only officer on the panel who was interviewed.

A key point in Veliz's case was his level of experience compared with Jindra's. Veliz had been a sergeant six years longer than Jindra when they applied for the job. Both had significant experience working gang and drug cases, which included partnering with federal agencies.

"On paper, it wasn't even close," said Michael Puklich, one of Veliz's attorneys.

The three officers on the panel weren't familiar with the specific details of Veliz's career, but they were quick to rattle off Jindra's résumé, Puklich argued.

If the panel didn't know much about Veliz when discussing who would get the Gang Strike Force job, shouldn't they have asked for more information, he said.

"Either the panel isn't being truthful or Veliz was out of the discussions right out of the gate," Puklich said.

At the end of his closing statement, he asked the jury to right a wrong. Puklich then turned to Veliz and said, "Sgt. Veliz, be proud of yourself."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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